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Film Review: Marley

Marley (2012; Directed by Kevin MacDonald)

It’s a curious feature of Scottish director Kevin MacDonald’s 2.5-hour-long documentary on the life and music of Jamaican reggae immortal Bob Marley that it holds back its purest illustration of the persistence of the Marley legacy until the end credits. Over the highly familiar strains of “Get Up Stand Up” and “One Love”, MacDonald shows people from Marley’s home island, from Africa, India, Tibet, London, and the U.S. posing in front of Marley-themed murals, wearing shirts with his face on them, and dancing and singing to his anthems. For a film rich in biographical and philosophical detail but light on insight into what has made Marley into a secular, post-modern Christ figure, these shots speak volumes into the musician’s enduring global appeal.

MacDonald’s first documentary feature since the riveting alpine classic Touching the Void (he also won a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for One Day in September, a superb exploration of the hostage taking and eventual killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich), Marley is interesting enough even as it shares the vague sense of intrusive, neo-colonial unease that engulfed the director’s Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland. MacDonald eschews a voice-over (although not onscreen titles, which carry essential the same didactic effect) and allows those who knew Marley well to tell his story: family, friends, bandmates, and acquaintances populate the film. But however much the Scottish arriviste auteur tries to stay behind the curtain, the question repeatedly presents itself: is this his story to tell?

Many of the story’s details are fascinating and a little surprising to those whose familiarity with Bob Marley does not go far beyond posters on frat house walls and that ubiquitous Legend album that everyone’s parents own. Born in the rural Jamaican town of St. Ann, Marley was mixed-race, the son of a white British functionary and a black Jamaican mother, and more than one observer attributes his extraordinary ability to speak to both sides of various social, cultural, political, and racial divides to this heritage of métissage. Marley (or at least his art) did indeed span supposedly irreconcilable gulfs: black and white, rich and poor, First and Third World, colonizer and colonized, left and right. Marley could appeal to both (or all) sides without necessarily belonging to any one. This uncanny ability was exemplified in one of the most famous incidents of his public career, when Marley convinced implacably opposed Jamaican political leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to join hands at the end of the One Love Peace Concert of April 1978.

Rejected by his white father’s family and marginalized by Jamaica’s social system of assured poverty, Bob Marley gave himself instead to the world, the film argues. He certainly gave himself freely to many people who passed through his life, as well as to many women besides his wife Rita (he had 11 children from 7 relationships, and MacDonald only features interviews with two additional partners and two of his offspring). This openness endeared him to many, but allowed threats to slip through gaps that subsequent megastars have tightened. His near-assassination by gunmen in the days preceding a free concert in 1976 that became associated with Manley’s socialist People’s National Party almost silenced a global voice before much of the globe had heard it, but his open-door policy at the legendary 56 Hope Road rehearsal house in Kingston enabled such violent incursions.

Still, Marley’s particularities are given a full treatment as well, in particular the obscure minority Rastafari faith which he made world-famous. The influence of his spiritual beliefs on his music is not overstated but could not be understated either; the songs adored by millions are expressions of the released energy of a faith that can boast only a few hundred thousand adherents, a minority even in Jamaica. The more eccentric tenets of Rastafarianism (its celebration of marijuana as a spiritual conduit, the belief that Ethiopian Emperor Hailie Selassie was the Second Advent of Jesus Christ) are not shied away from in Marley’s music and yet do not prevent his art from being reconciled with the modern world (the decadent, godless rabble of what Rastafari would call “Babylon culture”). This is generally taken as a statement of the resilient and universal appeal of Marley’s take on reggae music, but it may be just as revealing of the adaptive appropriative powers of Western corporate capitalism.

And yet, Marley himself endures, his charismatic solar flares undiminished. The snatches of live concert footage that MacDonald presents are undeniable case studies of his subject’s blazing stardom. Marley’s grimacing passion and lithe, dred-bouncing rhythmic motion collaborate with the appealing music in communicating as widely as possible. Bob Marley wished fervently to reach and to commune with as many other people as possible, a desire which universalized his peculiar belief-system and sometimes set him at odds with his collaborators (Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston both left Marley’s group the Wailers on the eve of breakthrough popular success, and Marley implies that it was as much about a militancy of alternative independence than money).

When Marley‘s credits roll, it’s clear enough that he has succeeded. Marley elucidates how and why Marley accomplished what he did, moving from poverty and obscurity to a demigod-like cultural immortality. But how that immortality proceeded from his accomplishments is left fuzzier and open to audience interpretation. Whether that is to Marley‘s credit or not is likewise a matter of personal opinion, but I’m left with the feeling that MacDonald could have crafted a film that might have done more on that score.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
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