In this honest, captivating biography of reggae legend Bob Marley, it’s clear his music and his message still ring true today.
Jim Poe

30 Jul 2021 - 9:43 AM  UPDATED 27 Jun 2022 - 2:16 PM

There’s a moment in the middle of Marley when the diminutive reggae superstar climbs on stage at a massive stadium somewhere in Europe. His global fame is just beginning to crest, and the sheer scale of all this is still new. Looking out on tens of thousands of ecstatic fans, he smiles in wonder and says to them, “Yes, you know, come a long way!”

That sense of awe is the best thing about this captivating documentary by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, Whitney), which was released in 2012.

Marley is an icon; it’s no exaggeration to say that many regard him as a saint or a prophet. He’s without question the most influential Jamaican who ever lived, and the most prominent ambassador of the Rasta faith. He was integral to the creation of reggae, one of the truly global forms of music. His unwavering advocacy of marginalised people around the world has made him a political as well as a musical legend. His fame has only grown since his tragic death from cancer in 1981.

So the sheer impossibility of his rise to mythical status from staggering poverty in the sprawling ghettos of Kingston might be taken for granted. What makes Marley such a worthwhile doco is that it makes the story of that ascension fresh and exciting. Macdonald presents Bob first and foremost as a human being, who had flaws and personal conflicts and moments of doubt and fear – and who achieved world-changing success with not only seemingly supernatural talent and charisma, but also patient practice and determination.

Authorised by Marley’s estate, the doco features interviews with many who knew him best, including some who count as legends themselves – his partner Rita Marley, reggae innovator Lee “Scratch” Perry and Wailers bandmate Bunny Wailer (who sadly died earlier this year). The mix of interviews and archival footage is straightforward in style, but this approach suits Marley as a subject. His music speaks for itself, and his rare interviews are a treasure of Rasta wisdom and wry humour. The frequently astonishing facts of his life and career – such as the moment he united Jamaica’s warring political factions on stage – give the story the feel of folklore, with no embellishment needed.

Macdonald’s approach may be direct, but this is a beautiful and riveting film that’s hard to pause for a break. It’s very well edited, and the historical footage, including numerous live performances and life on the streets of Kingston in the ’60s and ’70s, is unusually vivid and impactful.

Macdonald also pushes against the tendency to soften and whitewash Marley’s legacy – that of the unthreatening spiritual figure who soundtracks tiki bars and tourism ads – placing politics at the centre of the discussion. The 1970s was a time of bloody political sectarianism in Jamaica, and Bob made many attempts to mediate the conflict with his enormous influence. In 1976 he and Rita barely survived a politically motivated assassination attempt.

Bob’s staunch pan-Africanism is on display in his support of anticolonial struggles in Africa. There is stunning footage of the Wailers playing – and being tear-gassed – at the official celebrations of Zimbabwean independence in 1980.

Though it was made before the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence, there’s plenty in the doco that will resonate with viewers today. There are accounts of the police harassment Bob endured throughout his life, the importance he placed on reaching more Black listeners overseas, and the burning drive to succeed he felt after being rejected by his white relatives.

This realism about the systemic racism Bob faced, and spoke and sang against, enhances Marley’s message of universal fellowship and one love.

Though Marley is a stirring tribute, it’s no hagiography. Several interviewees are critical of him, citing the impact his infidelity had on the women in his life, or his spiritually motivated refusal to be properly treated after his cancer diagnosis, which may have cost him his life. Marley’s daughter Cedella speaks candidly of her bitterness about not getting enough of her dad’s attention when she was a child.

As for the most important thing: the presentation of the music is everything a fan could hope for. Bob’s music plays for much of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, with a perfect selection of anthems, early hits, rarities, demos and live recordings, and Macdonald lets many live versions play for longer than you expect. Watch it with good speakers or headphones to savour the excellent sound mix; you may find yourself dancing around your loungeroom. Marley’s music is the living spirit of his message and legacy, and the impact of it here is liable to make a casual watcher a devoted fan.

Watch Marley on Saturday 2 July at 9.20pm on SBS VICELAND. Also streaming now at SBS On Demand:


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