That Kevin Macdonald’s Marley is being released on 4/20 is undoubtedly a shrewd, even irresistible, bit of marketing. It also seems, if not disrespectful, then at least somehow diminishing. There’s a good deal more to Bob Marley than his inevitable status as the poster boy for marijuana culture. Just how much more is shown in this admittedly long—145 minute—documentary film. While I’ve never met the documentary that I didn’t think could be improved by cutting, Marley comes close—and that’s speaking as someone who is by no means a devotee of Marley’s music. In fact, I went into the film knowing little more than a few songs and fewer facts about the man. I came out well satisfied that Bob Marley is more important than I might have thought, and feeling like I knew something concrete about him.
Since the film was produced in part by Marley associates and family members—and was done with the family blessing—you might have reasonably expected a film that veers more than a little toward hagiography. The surprise is that this is exactly what you don’t get. Macdonald’s film clearly respects its subjects, but it carefully eschews bestowing undue qualities on the man. There is no glossing over his many affairs and mistresses, his numerous children by almost as numerous women, or even the fact that not all of these people were exactly elated by his treatment of them. There is even a tone of serious resentment in some of the remarks by his daughter, Cedella. The film, however, is content just to lay it out without comment—make of it what you will.
Similarly, Marley leaves the talking entirely to people who were actually there. Everyone who speaks had some real connection to the man. There are no extraneous famous figures called upon to pontificate about the significance of Marley’s music. Instead, what Macdonald gives us is a series of anecdotes about Marley. By the film’s end, these stories reveal almost an entire life in biopic form.
Of course, the entire film is infused with Marley’s music—often presented in ways that reveal what is behind that music. There’s even one telling scene where relatives hear the music with a particular interpretation in mind for the first time, and suddenly see more depth to the songs than they had previously imagined. The film is very well judged in these matters, and never falls into the trap of overanalyzing the music or reducing it to technical jargon.
Your fondness for the film will, of course, depend to some degree on your interest in Bob Marley. That said, I will also say that my interest in the movie and the subject was minimal, yet I enjoyed the whole film and feel like I learned something of value by watching it. It might prove more worth your while than you think, too. Rated PG-13 for drug content, thematic elements and some violent images.