Magnolia Pictures

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Bob Marley on music and the world at large. Though he only lived to be 36 years old, the Jamaican musician accomplished much in his life, spreading not only his music throughout the world, but a message of peace, tolerance and racial equality along with it. And while he can’t be solely credited with having created reggae, he certainly could be considered its nexus, bringing varied forces and innovators together to shape the genre. He was no doubt its greatest ambassador.

Marley, which hit theaters and on-demand services a few weeks ago, is a new film that attempts to capture the spirit of the remarkable man and shed some light on his short life. The documentary was directed by Kevin Macdonald, who was actually the third filmmaker to work on the film, after Martin Scorsese and then Jonathan Demme dropped off the project, and who is best known for his work on King of Scotland. Marley marks the first time the family estate has gotten behind such a project, with Bob’s eldest son, Ziggy, acting as executive producer along with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records who first signed Marley’s Wailers. As such, Macdonald had access to many members of the Marley clan. But he’s also done a fine job of rounding up any persons of significance still alive for interviews, most importantly founding Wailer Bunny Livingston and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. However, he even found relatives of Marley’s father, a white Englishman named Norval Marley, who never had any presence in the singer’s life.

Having achieved a good deal of popularity during his lifetime, there was plenty of archival footage of Marley for Macdonald to intersperse amongst the recent interviews with members of his family and his band. This is fortunate as the still tangible force of Marley’s music adds not only a soundtrack to the film, but gives the movie life and keeps it from becoming just a series of remembrances. Best among this live footage are scenes from Marley’s performance at Zimbabwe’s independence celebration in 1980 (which he did on his own dime). Even when tear gas is inexplicably released, he continued to perform.

Of course, Marley died in 1981 after cancer that had begun as melanoma in his foot had spread to the rest of his body. Macdonald combines the few images of Marley from this period with interviews with his nurse and those who had been with him during his final days to paint an evocative picture of this tragic time. Like the rest of the movie, this helps to depict Marley as a human being, albeit a very gallant one, and not just the icon of t-shirts and paraphernalia. Marley is a film worthy of its subject matter, one that helps reveal the character of the man while celebrating his legacy.
Stephen Slaybaugh