Put together by Kevin MacDonald (director of The Last King of Scotland), Marley is an epic – 2 and a half hour! – documentary about Bob Marley, the man who brought reggae to the masses and provided Owen Wilson with a name for his Labrador puppy. As the running time would suggest, it’s an incredibly thorough depiction of the man’s life – spanning his poverty stricken youth, his rise to international stardom, and culminating with his tragic death from cancer in 1981, and featuring interviews from his surviving family, bandmates and reggae luminaries numbering Jimmy Cliff and Lee Scratch Perry.
MacDonald has excellent documentary pedigree – he won an Oscar for One Day In September, about the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, as well as helming Touching The Void and last year’s user-generated content fest Life in A Day – and Marley is masterclass in traditional documentary filmmaking. It is all a bit televisual, but the new interviews and archive footage are cut with aplomb and the story rattles along at a terrific pace, despite the extended running time.
The problem with the film though is that Marley himself just doesn’t come across as very interesting. Great music bios should engage you with their protagonist, regardless of your opinion of their music (which is ultimately always going to be subjective). While there’s plenty of great live performances on show to enthrall fans and convert the uninitiated, we get little sense of the man himself.
A perfect example of the flip side of this would be the great The Devil And Daniel Johnson from a few years back – a film about a musician with possibly questionable music talent, but a fascinating character whose battles with depression and schizophrenia make a gripping and powerful piece of cinema, even if it doesn’t make you rush to iTunes as soon as the credits roles. Marley, on the other hand, is basically shown as someone who spent most of his days getting stoned, playing football and sleeping with groupies – a lifestyle I’m somewhat jealous of, but isn’t particularly riveting.
Part of the problem is the overly reverential tone (somewhat to be expected, as it’s produced by Marley’s son Ziggy). More dubious parts of Marley’s life, such as his constant infidelity or playing a show for Robert Mugabe, are glossed over. This actually has a massively negative effect on the whole project – instead of offering an interesting examination of a flawed but charismatic genius, the obsessive deifying renders things tiresome very quickly.
It’s a shame as there is some truly great stuff in here. The material of Rastafarianism was really illuminating and even better is stuff about Marley’s performance at a concert to bring together the almost-civil-war-torn Jamaica, which lead to failed assassination attempt on the singer. This section in particular recalls One Day In September, with MacDonald amping up the tension, and you can’t help that in itself would have made a fantastic doc on its own. Maybe that’s what MacDonald should have done instead of this sprawling, safe, gotta-tell-every-single-ancidote-even-if-it’s-not-that-relevant approach.