Judge Bill Gibron praises Jah for Bob Marley...and this well-meaning documentary.
Robert Nesta "Bob" Marley was born half-caste in the mountains of Jamaica, a product of a mixed race relationship between his native mother and a mysterious older Englishman. Growing up, he never fit in, having no real place in either ethnic community. Music was his only solace, especially when his family moved to the urban "ghetto" of Trenchtown, outside Kingston. There, he hooked up with like-minded teens to play. They would eventually form the influential band The Wailers. Working their way into the cliquish local scene, they were soon charting songs and playing shows. For Bob, it wasn't enough. He needed more. Seeking spiritual enlightenment, he fell in with the Rastafari movement. Soon, his religion formed the rest of his reggae career.
Spanning nearly two and a half hours and painstakingly walking through almost every aspect of his life, Marley means to redefine and reintroduce the artist/prophet/peacemaker as something he already is—a contemporary cultural icon with import beyond his far too short life (he died of malignant melanoma at age 36). Instead of focusing on the meaning, however, director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) concentrates on minutia. There's just too much meaningless detail here, an approach which robs the really important milestones in Marley's life of all their drama and impact.
This is a man, after all, who found amazing success in his homeland, only to initially play second fiddle to less established acts once he ventured beyond the Caribbean. Recognizing the opportunity, not the insult, Marley went on to become a global phenomenon. He was the subject of an assassination attempt, when feuding factions within Jamaica threatened to pull the country apart. When tensions grew to even more violent ends, Marley agreed to risk his life to return from "exile" and play a peace concert. He even traveled to Zimbabwe for a show celebrating the country's recent independence, only to discover his place among a dictator's "favorite" things. Bob Marley was one of the few rock stars—John Lennon being another—who became interpersonally entwined with his political and spiritual philosophy, so much so they all merged into one transcendent entity. He was never just about the music. Instead, he was a shaman, an example of someone who drew inspiration from nature and God to fine tune and forward his sonic message. Marley was more than a man, more than Rasta, and more than reggae's conduit to worldwide acceptance.
McDonald is barely interested in this and yet he does what any smart filmmaker does and lets the obvious truth speak for itself. Peppering his archival footage with talking heads and current interviews, we get a nice normal picture of Marley's life, from birth to breakout to untimely passing. Originally, Martin Scorsese was going to tackle this talent, and one can only imagine the majestic effort it would have been. After all, anyone who has seen Bob Dylan: No Direction Home or George Harrison: Living in the Material World knows that Mr. Goodfellas inherently understands the documentary dynamic. He knows when to pull the fluff and contextualize personal and professional benchmarks.
McDonald just motors through it all, paying no particular attention to who or what he is working with. The assassination gets as much scrutiny as a discussion with one of the man's many "baby mommas." Everything about the Rastafari religion is left as a mere aside. In fact, if it wasn't for the amazing music layered throughout the narrative, we'd get little actual insight into the man's personality and beliefs.
Marley plays like a placard at a celebrity celebration. It gets all the points right, but never delivers them with full power. McDonald should have taken the benchmarks, the times when Marley was the voice of reason within his torn Jamaican society, and showcased them. Who cares how many kids he had or if wife Rita tolerated his infidelities. Those are footnotes, not historic turning points. This is a man who took the stage when his country was in chaos and got the leaders of each warring side to step up with him and simply shake hands. Even more astonishingly, he traveled to Africa and managed to rise above questionable political tactics. Unlike a Behind the Music overview which simply hits the highlights, this should be in-depth and knowing. What was the creative process like? Why, exactly, was Marley so upset about not tapping into the US urban market? Granted, we get some of this, but that's what Marley should have truly focused on. Instead, everything is flattened with a lack of proper perspective.
Still, Marley is an engaging and revealing documentary, made even more so by the excellent presentation offered by Magnolia Home Entertainment. The Blu-ray shines with a superior 1.78:1/1080p high definition image. Yes, there are issues with the archival footage and not every picture is pristine, but the interviews are colorful, loaded with detail, and the overall montage make-up of the narrative is captured expertly in this terrific transfer. Even better, the lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is stunning, showcasing Marley's music with vibrance and clarity. The live performances have a real sense of setting and the Q&As are easy to understand. The film even provides burned in subtitles to decipher some of the thicker island accents.
As for bonus features, there is an interesting commentary track from McDonald and Marley's son Ziggy eventually shows up for the rest of the discussion. It's filled with production anecdotes and behind-the-scenes drama. Then there are extended interviews, some of which contain material that should have been included in the film itself. We also get an overview of how Marley's music impacted various nations around the world and a look at the context within the song "I'm Loose." Toss in some basics—trailers, stills—and you've got a good HD package.
Marley may not be perfect, but it's far from a failure. Instead, Kevin McDonald took a man who had many potential full length documentary subjects cemented within his celebrated life and decided to tackle them all, in the same matter of fact way. On the plus side, we get a broad and bravura overview. As for the negative, someone this special deserves a lot more. A lot.
Not Guilty, but it should have been epic.
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