Directed by: Kevin MacDonald
Premise: A documentary about reggae musician Bob Marley.
What Works: Marley is an exceptional documentary for a variety of reasons but among the most important is the way the film deals with Bob Marley’s place in history. There is an inherent question that all biographers must answer: do the times make the man or does the man make the times? That question poses a significant challenge for storytellers. Realistically, the former perspective—the times make the man—is often truer but that is an unsatisfying foundation for a story since audiences respond to characters that possess volition, which is the source of identity and heroism. The filmmakers of Marley manage to navigate that question by putting the film’s subject in his historical context and examining what choices Bob Marley made given the circumstances. That approach makes Marley a very interesting biography and a relevant story about the interaction between art and politics. While the filmmakers clearly have admiration for Bob Marley, this film is not a case of hero worship. There are lots of elements of Marley’s biography such as his rise from impoverished child to superstar musician or his survival of an assassination attempt, that could elevate him into a mythical figure, but this film always keeps Bob Marley within human dimensions. That is important because decades after his death, Marley has become a ubiquitous figure whose guise is more associated with cannabis than social justice. This film attempts to remind the viewer of Marley’s purpose; his characteristic dreadlocks were not just a hairstyle but an expression of an ideology and the content of Marley’s lyrics were as revolutionary and relevant as the early songs of Bob Dylan. It is that reconnection of content with meaning that makes Marley such a strong documentary. The great and important music documentaries such as Gimme Shelter, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Pearl Jam Twenty and Don’t Look Back are so because they analyze the work of important artists and connect their music to the culture in which they lived, ultimately characterizing both of them. Marley does this very well, connecting his music to developments in Jamaican and world culture.
What Doesn’t: Marley has a curious flaw. On the one hand the film has considerable length and yet some of its segments warrant a little more investigation than the film provides. Nothing in the picture comes across as extraneous but issues like the consequences of Marley’s politics or the reasons for his lack of appeal to African Americans are not examined. This film also lacks any negative criticism of the musician. Although disliking Bob Marley is like disliking ice cream and rainbows, the film would have strengthened its integrity if it had some dissenting voices. Also missed is the transformation of Bob Marley into a drug icon. His image is now associated with marijuana but, as the film points out, Marley’s drug use was part of a broader religious and ideological belief system. The film never addresses the way his image has been coopted as a symbol for recreational drug use but that subject may merit its own documentary.
Bottom Line: Marley is a very impressive music documentary. Although it is lengthy, the film provides an effective summary of his legacy and it is worth viewing both by audiences who are longtime Bob Marley fans and those who are unfamiliar with his work.
Episode: #387 (May 6, 2012)