‘Marley’: International vibration

April 20, 2012


Bob Marley was a seminal figure in popular music in the post-Beatles era: not the first person to introduce reggae to the radio but the first reggae superstar – and one of the first superstars to emerge from the Third World.

So “Marley” is a welcome documentary, one that celebrates his spirit, his creativity, his genius and his influence. If it errs on the side of hagiography, well, at least it gives us glimpses of previously unseen (and unheard) Marley performances, and as much interview footage as filmmaker Kevin Macdonald could collect.

Why, then, does “Marley” feel incomplete? Make no mistake: I enjoyed the film and found the interviews intriguing – with everyone from Chris Blackwell (who signed Marley to his record label) to Bunny Wailer (one of Marley’s original bandmates) to his wife Rita, his girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare and a couple of his children.

They tell a story of young Bob who, as a kid, always wanted to make music and began recording at a young age. He also had a highly developed sense of social justice, which sprang from his poverty-stricken youth and his own sense of being an outsider because he was mixed race, the son of a British soldier who never acknowledged him.

But there is apparently very little archival material of Marley himself being interviewed on camera or radio either in a serious manner or by someone with a depth of knowledge about the man and his music. So much of “Marley” is second-hand – primary sources, to be sure, eyewitnesses and participants. Yet no one seems to have a great depth of understanding about Marley, at least that comes through that way.

The only one who comes close is his daughter Cedella, who talks frankly about her lifelong inability to capture her father’s attention in a meaningful way. He was, by her account, an inattentive parent (and a prolific one, fathering almost a dozen children with more than a half-dozen women), who let his children compete for his focus. The women in his life seemed to understand his allergy to monogamy; his children faced similar expectations.

But Macdonald can’t seem to find anyone who has anything more negative to say about Marley than that he was all too human. He’s hailed as a courageous and politically astute musician who helped calm political violence (after an attack on his compound left him with bullet wounds) during a testy election season. And the footage doesn’t lie: There he is with political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, both candidates for prime minister, making them clasp hands on his stage in front of a massive crowd at one of his so-called “peace” concerts.

Watching him perform is magical; he achieves an almost trancelike abandon, his dreadlocks creating curtains of hair as he spins around. The music – from the earliest anthems to such later hits as “Exodus’ and “Punky Reggae Party” – stands up, still intoxicating and compelling more than 30 years after its release.

Still, as you listen to the people who knew him talk about Bob Marley in “Marley,” you get the impression that he left the people in his life (not to mention his fans around the world) wanting more. Which can also be said of Kevin Macdonald’s “Marley.”

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