I confess here and now that when I sat down to watch this documentary, I knew only the most basic details about Bob Marley and his life – that he was a singer, that my mother liked him back in what is so loosely called ‘the day’, that my sister owns a T-shirt with his face on it despite never having listened to any of his music… And that, I am ashamed to say, was about it.
It didn’t matter. Director Kevin Macdonald’s outstanding new film may be a swift departure from his previous work (although this is not his first documentary, it is his first biography), but with the amount of research and care that has been taken in putting this movie together, you’d think he was an old hand at this genre.
I will not divulge any specifics about Marley’s life; the movie will do that for you far better than I can. The narrative structure of the film is broadly chronological – exploring Marley’s life from birth to death, compiling interviews with his friends and family still alive, old photographs and video clips, news reports and newspaper clippings, concert videos and beautiful aerial shots of the Jamaican landscape, and of the places, seen in the modern day, where Marley spent his life. All of this combines to create a dreamy, hypnotic atmosphere, charged with the emotion and inspiring energy that motivated Marley throughout his life.
There are many things that I love about Macdonald’s new movie. I love the tenderness, the intimacy and the humour that pervade the film, even in its darker and saddest moments. Much of this comes from the recollections of the people that surrounded Marley; audiences warm instantly to them. They are so recognisably human, so eager to remember and share their precious memories with us (many of which provoked side-splitting bouts of laughter in the screening I attended), so effervescent and distinguishable in character – not reduced to a single enthusiastic caricature by over-editing, as so often happens with documentaries – and so relatable; we can’t help but like them, and their stories compel us with their bubbly humour, and their recollections of success and tragedy alike.
Why make a film about Marley in particular? Simply because Macdonald loved him as a star? Certainly, but also because of the important and fascinating story that this life has to divulge. Many people have insisted upon the power of music and the influence that celebrities can have on the world, and the changes they can provoke; very few, however, could justifiably be placed in that category. Bob Marley, however, is undoubtedly one of them; as he himself said – ‘My life is for the people’. And I believe he meant every word when he said that.
Perhaps the finest thing about this film, though, is the justice that Macdonald does to such an intricate and fascinating human being. The movie is two and a half hours long; I am sure that with all the fascinating stories that the interviewees had to tell, the finished product could easily have been twice that length. But the detail, love and care that Macdonald displays with this movie is admirable. Marley is not portrayed as a saint or a sinner; simply as a man with many flaws – but with a massive dream and the ambition to fulfil it. By the time he was 30, his influence was felt worldwide, not only by the public, but also reaching into the political unrest of his homeland. For me, the most moving moment in the film came during a concert after the end of the political violence in Jamaica. Despite massive setbacks, the concert still went ahead, and there was an electric moment during the performance when Marley asked the two heads of the opposing political movements in Jamaica to come up on stage with him and hold up their hands as a symbol of peace and national healing. It was spontaneous, and incredibly dangerous, but inspiring; I doubt any other man could have managed such an extraordinary and daring feat.
If I knew nothing about Marley’s music before the movie – I do now. Music was not only Marley’s passion but his lifeline, the way out of an existence of poverty, squalor and violence – and his own personal way of communicating with the world. So many of his lyrics are so universal in theme that they retain their relevance today; indeed, the final montage over the end credits is devoted to showing just how widespread Marley’s influence still is, and how many lives he has touched with his music.
Even if you are not a fan of Marley’s, and music is not your passion, that won’t matter a jot. The passion of the director and the great man himself is more than enough to pull you through and keep you entertained, fascinated and moved. Boasting a brilliant soundtrack, some beautiful cinematography, in-depth research and a compelling, emotional narrative style, this is a great achievement. I highly recommend it.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (April ’12)