I’m a Bob Marley fan, but I wasn’t ready for a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on the guy. I liked director Kevin MacDonald’s other stuff, particularly The Last King of Scotland and Life in a Day, but, again, two-and-a-half hours.
And while the time doesn’t fly by, it does hold your interest. There’s the standard talking heads you always see in a movie like this, but instead of each and every one endlessly talking about how much of an influence Marley was, MacDonald does the opposite and focuses more on the personal details and experiences that directly influenced Marley.
The film opens in Ghana, with a guide taking the camera through a tour of an old slave port. He stops at an ancient wooden door. “When the blacks passed through this door,” he says, “they knew they would never be coming back, that’s why it’s called ‘The Door of No Return.’” We’re then whisked to the shanty town of Nine Mile, Marley’s home town, and the story of his early life begins. Many of the details will come as a surprise—for example, I never knew his father was a white, English captain in the Royal Marines, nor did I know his father was 60 years old when he married Marley’s 18-year-old mother.
Interviews with Marley’s friends, cousins, band members, aunt, and mother reveal a man who struggled with his mixed race and saw music as his only way out of poverty. A lesser director would have several interviewees reiterating that point to drive it home, but here many of MacDonald’s interviews are conducted on location, so when we see one of Marley’s cousins leaning against an outside bar worked into a dilapidated shack, nursing his Guinness and puffing on half a cigarette while a stray dog runs by, we only need to hear it once, and the point has already been made by what we’ve seen.
MacDonald also takes a break from Marley’s story to look at the origins of Reggae itself, fusing Jamaican ska with American doo-wop, with nods to Desmond Dekker and long discourses from Marley’s bandmates on the beat, structure, and rhythm. You have the people there, why not get them to talk about what they know best?
The soundtrack is all Marley, and nearly every song, from his first solos to his last big hits are traced back to key moments in his life–”Judge Not” comes from Marley’s deep religious beliefs; “Jah Live” from the death of Haile Selassie; “Turn Your Lights Down Low” about his girlfriend (and Miss World) Cynthia Breakspeare. These are interesting at first, but as they go on, the greater interest comes from the interviewees, whose anecdotes get longer and reveal more about the people themselves than the song.
Among the highlights are the eccentric producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, who, at 75, sports magenta hair and pours gasoline on an eternal flame while discussing some esoteric point of Rastafarianism. His monologues ramble on as we see early footage of him in his recording studio, tossing rum into each of its corners and flailing his arms along with the music. One of Marley’s band members says that Perry may not be able to tell whether a guitar is properly tuned, but he knew a good sound when he heard it.
Many other events are explored—Marley meeting his father’s other family, his subsequent rejection by them, the song he wrote about it, and their response to hearing that song for the first time in that context; his assassination attempt; his uniting two feuding Jamaican leaders on stage at a free concert; his indiscretions; his travels in Africa; and his death—the film is comprehensive, but it never feels self-serving. MacDonald has a number of interviewees, and while he tells the long story of Marley’s short life, by the end we know just as much about the people around him as the man himself, and that’s just how a documentary should be.
Marley will be in limited theatrical release and on Video on Demand on (ha, ha, get it?) April 20th.