Marley bills itself as the definitive Bob Marley documentary. It has reached that status.
An examination into the life of Reggae superstar Robert Nesta Marley, Marley is a beautiful combination of lush Jamaican landscape with archived footage, still shots and interviews of the people closest to him. The music is more than a soundtrack as the impetus for Bob writing each song becomes clear with the timeline of his life.
The film offers a closeness to Bob never before seen. He’s described as shy, thoughtful, and focused. It’s heartbreaking to hear that he was called “Outcast” for being a half-breed. The issues he has with his absent father, and the reunion with his half-siblings is beautiful and handled well cinematically. While his friends say he was loving, his children say he wasn’t a “lovey-dovey” dad. Their recollection of his competitiveness and rigidness in their time spent offers another dynamic to his personality. His daughter Cedella’s bitterness toward her father is evident, as she describes his living at Hope Road instead of in the house with them and the perceived ‘mistreatment’ of her mother.
The topic of Bob’s philandering is handled diplomatically, allowing Bob to speak on it with the women in his life providing their support. Rita Marley’s perspective on being more than a wife, but being his Guardian Angel, is thoughtful and kind. If there is any bitterness, it is not onscreen, as time might be the best healer. Still, I noticed that while light-skinned former Miss Jamaica World Cindy Breakespeare is the mother of his son Damian, she is described as his ‘girlfriend,’ yet Janet Bowen, his dark-skinned girlfriend with limited camera time, is labeled as his ‘baby mother’ as a way to still insert the filmmaker’s perspective.
From the early days of The Juveniles, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh were more than Bob’s friends, truly his family. Bunny’s anecdotes and energy infuse a light heartedness that reminds you that this is a documentary on a man, not just a movement. The introduction of Chris Blackwell from Island Records and the eventual breakup of the original group is glossed over, as it might have been in Bob’s life. When his children are ostracized for having ‘weedhead parents,’ he tells them that “they don’t need friends; they have siblings,” and “not to trust people so much.”
The film doesn’t discuss Bob’s feelings about the disbandment, but perhaps his advice to his children is telling. Of course, he adds the I-Threes, Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt and the rest is history.
Marley’s life covers Jamaica’s most important events in the past 60 years, and the film attempts to do justice to them all, but there is no time to do so. The origins of reggae music are discussed, indicating the transition from ska to what is now known as reggae, but only scratches the surface regarding the downbeat. Though Bob was a force in Reggae music, he didn’t invent it, and Reggae: The Story of Jamaican Music does a better job of explaining this by interviewing people that weren’t in Bob’s camp.
Rastafari is discussed quite a bit in the film, certainly as its influence on Bob’s life was great. The filmmaker paints the picture that Haile Selassie was Bob’s de facto father. An actual “overstanding” is missed as it becomes more about Bob being a Rasta then what Rastafari is. Check out Hail the King if you want an in-depth analysis of Haile Selassie and the Rastafari influence in music.
The political unrest and economic issues are also used as a backdrop, but the film concentrates on Bob’s indifference to politics and the attempted murder for his perceived alliance with the incumbent Prime Minister Michael Manley. It says much about Bob that his influence in bringing about peace in Jamaica is due to his disinterest in politics. Life or Debt is a phenomenal documentary that provides more understanding of the reasoning behind the JLP and PNP gang wars in these times.
The archived and unseen footage are a genuine treat. To see Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry doing what he does best in the studio is a riot, especially if you’re familiar with his sound. The footage of Bob playing football was so sharp, it looked as if it was taken last week. The work put into this film is evident as you marvel at the quality and beauty of everything Bob. There are moments in the film where Bob sings and the screen only shows the Jamaican landscape and everything is alright with the world.
The career highs and lows are exciting to watch, knowing that he will become one of the greatest music superstars of all time. Coxsone’s dirty dealings, Island Records, going to UK to basically start from scratch, the limited play in the U.S., the Gabon concert, and the sold out shows of all white audiences are all detailed and supported with great documentation and interviews.
The melanoma that ensued from Bob’s toe was a point of contention in the film. Some say that the doctors advised him to remove the toe; others said he was to remove the leg all the way to the hip. The treatment they settled on clearly didn’t work, because years later, after passing out in the park, he found out the Cancer throughout his whole body and, despite rigorous German treatment, soon passed on. The fight is a hard one to watch onscreen. The montage at the end is worth staying through the credits. It is a pleasure to watch, uplifting and inspiring.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence. Bob Marley is, arguably, the finest thing to come out of Jamaica in this era.
Marley is certainly a film worth watching to celebrate the beauty that such an island can produce, something so great as to become a world-wide phenomenon.
It's currently streaming on Netflix.