3 1/2 stars out of 4
Like only a handful of musical pioneers before him (Mozart, Ellington, Sinatra, Hank Williams and the Beatles) that redefined their respective genres, Bob Marley completely and forever changed the landscape of Caribbean music. Beginning in 1962 at age 17, Marley took ska and rocksteady, mixed it with some gutbucket folk and soul and essentially invented reggae.
The subject of a few inferior documentaries already, Marley's is the type of story that demands thoroughness and the piloting of a master filmmaker. This project began in 2008 with Martin Scorsese at the helm but he quickly bowed out citing scheduling conflicts. He was replaced by Jonathan Demme who parted ways with the producers during editing. Starting over from scratch, the Scottish-born Kevin Macdonald -- whose 19-film resume includes 15 documentaries -- took over. Though not considered a "master" as such by many now, most will change their opinion of Macdonald after they see "Marley."
With the full cooperation of Marley's family, Macdonald's film more than sufficiently covers the glory years (1975-80) when Marley was arguably the world's most popular musician. During this time, he was the musical equivalent of soccer. While the rest of the world adored him, he was perceived in the U.S. largely as a cult artist who enjoyed only modest record and concert ticket sales. This changed radically after Marley's passing when his greatest hits album ("Legend") achieved diamond status -- 14 million plus units sold in the U.S., 25 million total worldwide.
Even for longtime Marley enthusiasts, the first half of the film is an eye-opening watershed. Macdonald and his editors seamlessly weave together still photos and archival footage with new, live-action-quality shots of the lush Jamaican landscapes and shanty towns where Marley grew up along with interviews with locals, family (including his mother, widow Rita and two of his children), musical collaborators and ... some of his mistresses.
Most video biographers -- especially those working with the blessing of surviving family members -- would choose to ignore or gloss-over the subject's indiscretions but Macdonald treats this facet of Marley's life with a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental tone. Even though Marley only married once (and never divorced), he fathered 11 children with seven different women and acknowledged, nurtured and/or financially supported all of them.
Taking the high road and something of an old-world European perspective regarding Marley's affairs, Rita grudgingly chalks it all up to his looks, talent, high profile and that he never sought them out. Macdonald is careful to counterbalance Marley's dalliances with information regarding his own upbringing via an absentee father (who was white) and some other quite revealing family tree nuggets. Macdonald also deserves considerable credit for going into fine detail regarding Marley's reluctant influence on the tumultuous Jamaican political landscape.
Clocking in at 144 minutes, "Marley" is far longer than the typical biographical documentary and would probably have been perfect if Macdonald and the editors excised some of the less-necessary concert footage. Because of the heavy accents of some of the interviewees (all but one speaking English), Macdonald provides only occasional subtitles. There are points, especially with Marley himself speaking, where the subtitles are frustratingly absent.
As welcomed and vital as it is, "Marley" is the type of film that should have come out in the late fall when critics and award-givers pay the most attention. Hopefully it will make enough of a lasting impression to reap its deserved accolades when the time comes.
If you choose to see it -- and music fans should ASAP -- be sure to stick around through the closing credits. Two Marley songs accompany some brilliantly assembled current day footage that goes far in explaining and validating his continuing global appeal. The only sad thing about this movie is that the man who broke through so many creative and social barriers never lived to see the monumental extent of his influence. (Magnolia)