Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Marley, the subject of which being one of the very few musicians of the rock era to have become a genuine icon, is as thorough and well-judged an account of this remarkable man’s extraordinary life as you could wish for. Starting from the circumstances of his birth (his father was a white sixty-something year old plantation official, his mother a black teenager) and his early life in a hillside Jamaican village, it moves steadily through Marley’s move to Kingston and the development of his passion for music, his hooking up with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone to form The Wailers, a ska outfit who had massive success but only in Jamaica, and on to the group’s move to London and Marley’s subsequent superstardom. Canny marketing by Island records boss Chris Blackwell saw The Wailers break through to a mass rock audience in a way no other reggae group had ever done, but by the end of the 1970s Marley seemed to be more than just a particularly hip sort of rock star: his knack for infusing his infectious and highly radio-friendly compositions with convincing and universal messages promoting global peace and unity led to him being courted by politicians and garnering almost Messianic levels of adulation. His death from cancer at the age of 36 was undoubtedly tragic, but probably avoidable had he heeded early warnings about the malignant melanoma in his foot – it certainly sealed in his legendary status.
Macdonald features interviews with pretty much all the major surviving witnesses to Marley’s life: his mother and first teacher, Jamaican reggae legends Livingstone, Jimmy Cliff and the fabulously eccentric Lee Scratch Perry (in his dotage now, but still sporting bright purple facial hair), and his wife Rita, two of his children and Chris Blackwell himself (who, incidentally, is a dead ringer for Michael Caine). These are knitted together with archive interviews with Marley himself (who is usually pretty unforthcoming) and extracts from concert footage, in which the man with the dreads frequently seems to be almost in a trance, channeling a higher plane of existence while his band raises the roof around him. Or maybe that’s just the ganja. Macdonald does entirely without voiceover, though there are quite a few context-explaining captions in a tasteful shade of yellow, and he’s definitely to be commended for not including any vacuous and platitude-laden interviews with current stadium-level stars. The film also gets points for not shying away from the less spiritual aspects of Marley’s life – he loved football, evinced at times a ruthless ambition, and had a fairly chaotic personal life as evidenced by his eleven children by seven different women – and this provides a necessary balance to the somewhat Jesus-like image he appeared quite happy to cultivate at times. Marley’s such a significant figure, in terms of giving a voice and an inspiration to vast swathes of under-privileged humanity as much as anything else, that the two and a half hour running time of this film doesn’t feel like a drag at all, and even the potentially cheesy credits montage showing his music being sung by people all over the world succeeds in being uplifting. A lot of his songs are as familiar and as comforting now as Christmas carols, but there’s a powerful revolutionary spirit still alive in the best of them.