Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Opens May 25 at the Charles Theatre
A man in a white shirt squints in the sun. He stands before a massive castle in Ghana, a vast structure made of rough pearly stone, and talks about how this is the location from which millions of African slaves were shipped to the West. Soon after, you’re flown over Jamaica’s verdant hills, looking down on clouds and a smattering of buildings in the distance. You hear an old woman sing a children’s song, a woman you later find out is Bob Marley’s first teacher, and the tune, apparently, a favorite of the musician’s as a child. Moments later, director Kevin Macdonald drops the viewer into his subject’s world, gathering every detail he can muster to weave the story of one influential man’s life.
Born to a black mother and a white father, Marley felt the sting of isolation in his rural Jamaican town. His father died early on, and he and his mother moved to Kingston to find work, settling in the impoverished area of Trenchtown. It seems that hardship focused the young artist, and he teamed up with fellow musicians Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer to form what would later become the nation’s most popular band, the Wailers. The film follows his rise to fame, his family life, and his friendships. Since Marley’s wife and children were active collaborators in the filmmaking process (his son Ziggy is the executive producer), the film traverses territory previously closed off to the public.
The result is something that any filmmaker would want: too much good material. The usually reclusive Bunny Wailer shares his stories, Marley’s half-sister Constance weighs in on their father’s family, and former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare talks about her relationship with the famed musician. Each element of the film comes together to form a lush landscape, but ultimately all of these disparate elements overshadow one another. Certain fascinating aspects of the story—like the jet-setting star’s relationship with his children—are mentioned only briefly before the film moves on to another topic. While talking about her father’s last moments alive, his daughter Cedella tears up, confessing that even in his few remaining hours, she still had to share him with the rest of the world; everyone clamored to be at his side. After touching so many lives around the globe, Marley has legions of people to weigh in on his legacy, and one of the hefty responsibilities facing Macdonald and editor Dan Glendenning was to sift through it all and determine what should stay and what should go. Unfortunately, at two hours and 24 minutes, Marley could still use pruning.
Despite the length, and despite the elements of the story that would have benefitted from more time in the spotlight, Marley succeeds at delivering a compelling narrative, though the man at the center of it isn’t alive to speak for himself. The interviewees are candid; having Marley’s family so intimately involved could have led to sugar-coating, but they appear to portray him honestly, warts and all. The film delves into his break with the Wailers, his numerous affairs, and the ways his career drove wedges between him and those closest to him. Viewers get to know him as a three-dimensional being, going beyond the figure commonly seen on stage.
One of the challenges facing the filmmakers was a dearth of visual documentation of much of the musician’s life. As Macdonald notes in a statement, “There’s nothing at all of the first 11 years of his career. From 1962 to 1973 there’s not a single piece of footage, and only a handful of photographs.” Yet Marley takes the materials on hand and manages to fill in the blanks, relying on interviews, photographs, and recordings. Gorgeous aerial shots of Jamaica illuminate Marley’s world, and interviews blend into songs to further enrich the story. But once the film reaches 1973 and archival footage becomes available, it’s dropped in in large, indigestible chunks. Live performances stretch on, and while Marley’s songs still resonate with listeners today, trimming those scenes would have greatly improved the film. In general, Marley’s makers ought to have relegated reams to the cutting room floor.