Kevin MacDonald’s compelling biopic of reggae legend Bob Marley is perhaps as definitive a portrait of the legendary singer as one could hope to view on the silver screen. Opening in Nine Mile, Jamaica, where the star was born, MacDonald begins an incredibly thorough and balanced account of Marley’s fascinating existence , interviewing family members and significant musical collaborators along the way to create a vivid insight into the life of Marley – and those around him – up until his untimely death in 1981.
This isn’t just about the music. Alongside insightful and honest conversations with those closest to him, MacDonald’s story uses a terrific range of archive footage to document Marley’s conversion to Rastafarianism and successfully illustrates the overwhelming political power he achieved through song. One poignant moment captured during the One Love Peace Concert (which aimed to unite Jamaican citizens during the political civil war) sees Marley welcoming Prime Minister Michael Manley and his Conservative rival Edward Seaga on stage to hold hands during an astonishing performance of Jammin’.
But perhaps most eye-opening are the early scenes, concerned with Marley’s family life and his entrance into the music world at the age of 16. Growing up as a mixed-race teen in Jamaica clearly had an impact on Marley and his music: as did the rejection from his father’s family. One particularly emotional segment sees the interviewer highlighting the lyrics of Corner Stone to Marley’s cousin and sister. Witnessing their reactions, as the pair listen intently and slowly understand Marley’s message, is entirely absorbing.
There’s a lot to cram into the film, of course, and the lengthy documentary (at 144 minutes) suffers slightly as a result. In creating such an impressively comprehensive account of Marley’s success, MacDonald can only spend limited time on aspects of Marley’s life, before swiftly moving on. We are led to understand how and why Marley became so popular but there’s still a sense that we don’t know all that much about the man himself.
From the initial shot of Jamaica’s rolling hills to the closing clips of Marley’s adoring fans around the world today, Marley is an incredibly immersive and often moving viewing experience, celebrating the life of one of music’s greats. MacDonald’s documentary is sure to be a joyous watch for both fanatical followers and those less familiar with the work of reggae’s brightest star.