Even to those less acquainted with his music, it goes without saying that Bob Marley is one of the most recognisable icons of popular culture. Kevin MacDonald (Director of Touching the Void) delves beyond his public image and places a sharp focus on his life, relationships and private character in this intimate documentary biopic.
Marley is largely based on interviews with Bob Marley’s closest friends and relatives including his son Ziggi Marley (who also produced the film), wife Rita, mistress Cindy and members of his band The Wailers. These candid interviews give an unprecedented insight into Bob Marley not only as an artist but as a husband, lover and father. MacDonald also intersperses the film with performance footage and rare archive footage of Marley himself.
MacDonald handles the difficult task of creating a sense of narrative and dramatic tension using only interview footage with skill. Jamaican neighbourhoods in the 1960s and ’70s are colourfully evoked using a combination of archive and contemporary footage and a sense of cinematic scale is introduced with sweeping shots of the lush Jamaican countryside that Marley was born in.
It is fair to say that anybody watching Marley would come away with a rich understanding of the moods and experiences behind the music. Starting life in the rural village of St. Anne’s, Jamaica, Marley was raised by a single mother and experienced extreme poverty as well as social rejection due to his mixed heritage (his father was white). As well as his own personal struggles, Marley grew up in a nation scarred by colonial domination and bitter political conflict. Marley’s music was clearly embedded in these issues and the film systematically charts the evolution of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ ground-breaking sound in the context of social and political strife. Initially influenced by American acts, Bob Marley and The Wailers increasingly developed into a uniquely Jamaican creation, gaining popularity first in Jamaica and then in the U.S and Europe.
MacDonald weaves the story of Marley’s music and the international expansion of reggae with Marley’s own spiritual conversion to Rastafarianism – a controversial form of Christianity. His religious beliefs elevated Marley from musician to social revolutionary and cultural symbol around the world.
The central concept that underpins Marley is that of the underdog. As the rejected child of a white father, born in one of the most impoverished regions in the world and preaching an unconventional lifestyle, Bob Marley should have been an outcast but his appeal as a cultural icon was that he seemingly spoke for the underprivileged masses. But crucially, the film does not flinch from portraying the darker elements of Marley’s life, including his consistent womanising, drug abuse and absentee parenting. The result is a truly human portrait of an extraordinary life.