Marley Review: A Stunningly Comprehensive Documentary

Good documentaries make us want to know more about their subject. But great ones like Marley don’t need to.

Shaun Munro


[rating: 4]

It is a perpetually taxing question for documentary filmmakers; how should one view their subject? Aim too broadly and fans will be disappointed, but a trained focus also invites dangers of crafting a doting hagiography. Kevin MacDonald’s long-gestating Bob Marley documentary has finally arrived, and appears to have found a way to answer this question, providing an intimate glimpse into the singer’s life while remaining accessible enough to the casuals.

Marley is perhaps best comparable to Cameron Crowe’s recent Pearl Jam Twenty doc which, while an adequate study, came off as vaguely disingenuous as the band members self-consciously spoke of their own aversion to fame. MacDonald’s film, obviously lacking access to the man himself, leaves it to the friends and family left behind to paint a more genuine – yet no less intimate – examination of one of pop culture’s most popular and enduring figures. There is no sense here – even in the archive interviews with Marley – that his remarks are ever particularly affected; the impression we get is of a simple, humble man trying to bring humanity together.

After the stylistic sophistication of something like MacDonald’s riveting Touching the Void, the deliberate, no-frills approach of his latest film might seem a little unwieldy. Almost no detail appears to have been spared in what if nothing is a comprehensive work, but one which works because almost every moment layers on another interesting facet of Marley’s fascinating life and charismatic personality. It won’t earn any plaudits for its editing – as directly opposed to something like last year’s Senna, a marvel of clear, concise cutting choices – and at 144-minutes, sitting through it is quite an ask, especially for those with only a passing interest, but sticking with it ultimately proves extremely rewarding.

Exhaustive yet not exhausting, Marley traces almost every possible aspect which shaped the singer’s life, from his Jamaican upbringing – by a young mother and near-absentee father – to his burgeoning career, which saw him travel the world, challenge the way people think and amass grand popularity. Arguably the film’s most powerful moment comes as he convinces Jamaica’s opposing party leaders to come on stage and join in a quick embrace as he performs. This, it appears, is the power of his music, and the charm of the man.

He is a man of such persuasive swagger and personal heft that it would be easy for the film to seem hagiographic just through his sheer exuberant confidence, yet MacDonald smartly delves into both the light and dark of Marley’s life and career, such that we feel we are informed through what is undoubtedly a well-rounded investigation.

For all of the glimpses at his unforgettable music that we get, there is also a sense of someone unfussed by fame, keen only to spread his message to as many as possible, with attention being only a by-product of that. We get the impression of a thoroughly decent, though naturally flawed man, whose daliances with countless women throughout his life – owing to 11 children by 7 women – doesn’t feel entirely in-line with the rest of his philosophy. Nevertheless, the women themselves admit that they find it hard to hold it against him; his persuasive charm was just that strong, it seems.

While the film serves Marley’s faith of choice, Rastafarianism, quite well, there’s a firmly tragic sense by film’s end that his lackadaisical beliefs are ultimately what caused his early demise. A laid back demeanour meant never keeping check-up appointments at the doctor, a fact that is conceded here probably prevents him from being alive today, a sobering, sad statement. Nevertheless, MacDonald refuses to eulogise the man, instead opting for a spry – though perhaps too painstaking for some – approach, and one which will place a smile on most faces, along with perhaps a lump in the throat.

Pouring through heaps of rare performance footage, Kevin MacDonald has crafted an exceptional examination of Bob Marley’s life, limited only by its sprawling length, which could perhaps have been turned in slightly. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine anyone making a more complete and authoritative film about the legend’s life. Good documentaries make us want to know more about their subject. But great ones like Marley don’t need to.

Marley is in UK cinemas now.