An official re-release of the Bob Marley biopic Marley is cause for celebration. The film, originally released in 2012, is out on pay-per-view and in virtual screening rooms now. This look at the legendary reggae artist ranks among the best music documentaries ever made.
Marley takes a comprehensive view of the singer’s life and music, from his origins in poverty in the shantytowns of Kingston, Jamaica to superstardom just before his untimely death in 1981. Running almost two and a half hours, the film does an outstanding job of providing background on key moments in his life and career. There’s a lot about his childhood, including his origins in the rural town of St. Anne, where he was raised in a home without electricity. As founding band member Bunny Wailer notes in the film, “He found a way out … his guitar.”
Director Kevin MacDonald interviews Marley’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, including his wife Rita and two of his children Cedella and Ziggy. There are also historic interviews with Marley himself, along with extended performances, including some rare live versions of his songs. There are stunning visuals which capture the essence of Jamaica, the island nation so closely identified with the singer.
It’s no surprise that the film opens to the positive vibrations of Marley’s “Exodus” at the “Door of No Return” in Ghana, West Africa. The African prison was of course the embarkment point for newly sold slaves. Indeed, the struggle for Black liberation in Jamaica and Africa is central to this story. Marley later became a world-wide icon in the ongoing liberation struggle, his legend having grown even more since his death. The film shows how his music was political from the start; although early on, he and the Wailers made some time for popular hits, including Dion and the Belmont’s “Teenager in Lover.”
The film doesn’t avoid some of the more complicated aspects of his life – Marley’s father was white, and his mixed racial identity was a challenge for a young man who was often bullied and shunned by peers. His embrace of the Rastafarian lifestyle was also controversial at times, and his well-intentioned foray into Jamaican politics led to a failed assassination attempt.
Marley almost singlehandedly brought reggae music to the world, and his audience continues to expand. The film quotes other leading reggae artists including Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, but Marley’s music has reached a far larger audience – with compelling poetry and a crossover sound – “roots, rock, reggae,” as one of his songs goes.
In many ways, the film is a typical rock star biopic. Marley’s story is one of a talented artist who overcame the odds, re-formed his band more than once, rose to fame, dealt with adversity, drugs, troubled relationships, a manager who stole from him, found religion, etc… But not many deceased rock stars receive state funerals – this particular “legendary musician” transcended so much in his life to become a cultural icon. We highly recommend this one!