Bob Marley's music has become such a ubiquitous thinglike a buzz in the background of a Texaco or the soundtrack to jokes about dread headsthat it can be easy to dismiss. It may take a dark theater and the melodic voices of Jamaicans telling you what life is worth to jog your memory of just how cool this music is. If you've ever loved reggae but have since decided you're over it, or you've outgrown it, I suggest you go see Marley and let it back inside your head and your heart.
Before Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) signed on to direct, the project was attached to Martin Scorsese and then Jonathan Demme. Bob's most famous son, Ziggy Marley, has an executive producer credit. This is a story that wants to be told. Marley is an exhaustive history of Bob's life in rural Jamaica, Kingston, the States, Africa and Germany, told through still and moving images, concert footage and interviews with close friends and family. A good music documentary knows how to dwell on the music without losing its audience. When Bob is onstage performing, Marley doesn't do some BS MTV-style fast cutaway. Jamaica is slow and reggae moves to its own, unhurried rhythm and so does this film.
Regarding Bob Marley's legacy, the ticket seller at the Wilma told me, "I was a little over-exposed as a kid," and I can relate. My dad has taken me to Jamaica twice, and I've seen it firsthand. Bob in Jamaica is to Cobain in Seattle, times 100. Goats really do wander the streets and poor children go without shoes. At one point in the late '90s, all three of my mother's children had dreadlocks.
So I was surprised by how much from the film I didn't know. There are so many rich details worth learning or, if you've just forgotten, worth remembering: that the Wailers started out looking like every other close-cropped, suit-wearing pop group from the early '60s. that Marley at one time worked for Chrysler in Delaware; that he was shy. Hell, I'd forgotten that he was half white.
Marley was so influential in Jamaican politics that it's unclear who was responsible for his attempted assassination; both sides may have benefited from his death. For even these big world events, the film favors a close-up perspective. It's more interested in Marley's humanity than his celebrity. Macdonald talks to his wife and girlfriends both. Rastafarianism isn't always fair to women, and the film doesn't shy away from the consequences of his free love.
There's a lot of footage of ordinary Jamaicans, close-up faces, kids and animals. These shots reminded me a little of the Soviet films of Sergei Eisenstein, only warm and in color. The images might seem incongruous, but in fact, they speak directly to the heart of the matter. What artist besides Marley is so inseparable from his home country and the people who live there?
I loved this movie because it reminded me how much I love Bob Marley's music, and I admired how the rhythm of the film was so in sync with the rhythm of Jamaican life. When Marley speaks in voiceover about the vibrational energy of Trenchtown, I was happy to see the filmmakers unembarrassed to take seriously the idea that place can so affect the souls of its people.
And yes, Marley would be great to get high to (but then, most films are). Fair warning: At two and a half hours, unless you're smoking really good stuff, the buzz will have worn off and you'll have to suffer through his funeral without a filter. Bob Marley died at just 36 years old, after a long battle with cancer, and, oh lord, Macdonald has not gone easy on us in chronicling this period.
Just leave your ironic sense of detachment at the door. Give yourself permission to be moved by celebratory music, even though it's born out of war, suffering and oppression. One love!
It's a real thing.