Pity the poor cultural icon, especially those no longer with us to defend themselves from the ravages of media saturation. Reggae superstar Bob Marley probably serves as the clearest example of how an artist's legacy may be obscured through the over use of his face and music on everything from T-shirts to TV commercials. Marley was an innovator, a worldwide ambassador for the musical form he helped create and a singer/songwriter with few equals in his time. His mission was to communicate a straightforward but resonant message of unity and love that's still held dear by the dispossessed in every corner of the globe. And for the most part, he lived up to his own ideals in a way that sets him apart from his peers.
There's no shortage of books and films about Marley's life. But before director Kevin Macdonald's new documentary Marley, the story had never been told accurately and with the full cooperation of those who knew him best — his family and his collaborators. Obstacles included a shortage of archival materials from his impoverished early days, and the rights issues stemming from the fact that he fathered 11 children by seven different mothers, and died from cancer at age 36 without ever writing a will. But director Macdonald, who's known for his Oscar-winning films in both documentary (One Day in September) and narrative forms (The Last King of Scotland), had the talent and the resources to make Marley the definitive document of a complex and extraordinary life. It screens at FilmOrama this week.
Macdonald came to the project late, after both Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme had committed to directing and then backed out. With help from Marley's intimates, Macdonald manages to paint a balanced portrait of a flawed human being while capturing the historic sweep of Jamaican music and culture in the 1960s and '70s. Nothing is sugarcoated here — Marley's neglected daughter Cedella and long-suffering wife and bandmate Rita are allowed to tell their own hard-fought stories. The film repeatedly returns to scenes of pivotal moments in Marley's life and uses music, words and gorgeous original photography to render insignificant the lack of vintage materials. The rare concert footage is a treat, but Marley's almost two and a half hour running time unfortunately prevents the inclusion of extended live sequences widely available elsewhere.
The film also finds effective ways to explain critical points such as the rhythmic differences between reggae and the musical forms that preceded it, and the reasons behind the political turmoil of mid-'70s Jamaica that engulfed Marley and led to a nearly fatal attempt on his life. Most telling are connections made between the social stigma Marley suffered in the black community for his mixed-race background, the painful and complete rejection by his white father, and his personal drive to overcome immense roadblocks and deliver an enduring message of unity to the world. Try fitting that on a T-shirt. — KEN KORMAN