It makes sense that a documentary on reggae legend Bob Marley would run nearly two and a half hours. Because if there’s anything that Bob Marley fans are known for, it’s their ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time.
All kidding aside, Kevin Macdonald’s "Marley" is worth sticking with, and not just for diehard fans who had "Get Up, Stand Up" emanating from their dorm room speakers all through college. This is a serious, even-handed film, filled with illuminating interviews and some rare, revealing footage, that uses its ample running time to understand the musician and his times. In that sense, it seems kind of beneath Magnolia Pictures that it initially released "Marley" in New York and Los Angeles on April 20, just to make a cheap marijuana reference (4/20, get it?)
Macdonald, who has made feature films like "The Last King of Scotland" as well as documentaries like "Touching the Void," appreciates his subject but doesn’t lionize him, and is attuned to the contradictions that propelled Marley. For a man who made music aimed at bringing people together, Marley felt alienated from his Jamaican neighborhood, the son of a black woman and an English father he barely saw. For a man who made such relaxed music, Marley was incredibly driven and competitive.
The film was authorized by Marley’s family, so Macdonald’s access to personal material, including home movies, is unparalleled. Marley comes across as a phenomenally charismatic character, submerged into music onstage and a generous but not saintly spirit offstage. And of course, the music is everywhere, often lesser-known live versions of familiar songs like "Three Little Birds" or "One Love."
Some of the most fascinating material is of Marley’s life before he was famous, toiling as a teenager in small bands in Jamaica’s Trench Town. Likewise, the recollections of his bandmates, including Bunny Wailer, are fascinating, as are photographs and early demos.
Then we see Marley slowly grow into the force he remains today, beyond musical to cultural and political. A scene where he holds a peace concert in Jamaica, and spontaneously gets the leaders of two feuding political parties to join hands with him onstage, shows the sort of influence he could wield.
The film hits the big events of Marley’s life — the world tours, a politically motivated assassination attempt at his recording studios — but also digs into the details of Marley’s life, including his womanizing and how difficult it can be to grow up with Bob Marley as your father.
It’s interesting to see how, in different interviews, some of those who knew Marley are enraptured by his legend, while others saw the man as he was. For example, when Marley suffered melanoma on his toe, one doctor advised that he have it amputated. Only, in the retelling, one source embellishes so that the doctor wanted to cut off the entire leg at the hip.
During the closing credits, we see footage of ordinary people from Jamaica to Iran to Africa dancing to and singing Marley tunes. That’s inspiring, but "Marley" is valuable because it lets us see the man behind the legend.