A long film detailing a tragically short life, on paper, Kevin Macdonald's Bob Marley documentary "Marley" has more than enough of a pedigree to justify its 2 1/2 hour running time. After all, it's a biopic of one of the most influential and evergreen musical pioneers of all time, being brought to us by the respected documentarian behind the thrilling "Touching the Void" and the Oscar-winning "One Day In September." But the truth is that film's exhaustive approach at some point becomes simply exhausting, with its sporadic moments of true inspiration, almost all directly connected with the music or Bob's early life, serving mostly to remind of how by-the-numbers the rest of the movie is. It purports to bring us the man behind the myth, but 150 minutes later, the flesh-and-blood Marley remains frustratingly out of reach, and the myth is still reverently intact.
It's hard to point to any one person or directorial choice that is solely responsible for this lack of subjectivity, though the good intentions on display are undeniable. But while MacDonald has marshalled a pretty definitive line-up of talking heads, spanning generations and branches of the Marley family, Wailers, friends, lovers, and colleagues, it's almost as if every one of them individually makes a choice at some point to soften the edge of a bad call, or to gloss over a hurt caused by callousness or selfishness, in the interests of Marley's legacy rather than the truth of his life. Rita Marley, the wife Bob cheated on repeatedly is a good case in point. In life, she swallowed her pain and frustration and continued to act as Bob's helper, backing singer and "guardian angel," she tells us, with her beatific smile. She refuses to dwell on how hurtful his actions may have been, or what kind of flaw in Marley's character his relationships with women might point to (over the years he fathered 11 children from 7 different relationships). And even his other lovers are mild in their reproaches. Cindy Brakespeare, the Jamaican Miss World with whom Marley had a long-standing affair, recalls how women (who were, among other things, expected to wear dresses and behave modestly) were not really sought for their opinions, and when they offered them, they were ignored by the men who made the decisions. And yes, this was the seventies and feminism had not yet made the inroads it subsequently would, but this is still a little jarring to our perception of Marley as the patron saint of all things equal, enfranchised, progressive and respectful of human dignity. That his behaviour here is mentioned with a rueful "that's just the way he was" smile, and then we move on again, is a testament to how very lovable and forgivable a man he clearly was, but also to how the past can become whitewashed, out of nothing more malicious than love, forgiveness and kindness.
Shame then, that the film is not about solely about the music, but also about the man, because the sections unanchored by a strong musical narrative devolve into episodic "and then he went here and did this" sequences. It all adds up to a curiously undramatic experience. Yet this was a man who played a free concert immediately after being attacked by a politically-motivated gunman, a man whose first, historic trip to Africa was to play at the birthday party of a dictator whose 16 year-old daughter he fancied, a man who revolutionized music, shattered barriers, sold as many T shirts as Che Guevara and managed to maintain friendships on all sides of the divide during some of the most politically turbulent years in Jamaican history: his was not a life that lacked contradiction and drama. But something in the presentation of these events simply fails to thrill, and, coupled with the length, really contributes to a certain pedestrian quality to large portions of the documentary.
It’s not that we were hoping for some salacious expose of the TMZ-style REAL Bob Marley (we are as convinced about him ultimately being a force for good as we ever were) but Macdonald’s instincts for drama seemed dulled here by reverence. “Marley”is by no means a bad film, but we expected greater and all we really got was more. It presents a comprehensive portrait of the whens and wheres of Bob Marley’s life but the hows, and crucially, the whys remain largely elusive. [B-]