One love. One short life. But it was extraordinary. The reggae legend,Bob Marley passed away at just 36 but he packed more into a lifetime than a generation of people combined. And now there is an extraordinary documentary to celebrate all this.

Marley is the brainchild of director Kevin MacDonald (One Day In September, Touching The Void). It is extremely comprehensive and provides a detailed portrait of the creative genius; chilled writer; and the social and politically conscious musician.

The film uses a mix of rare photos, interviews, concert and archival footage, much like Martin Scorsese’s recent offering about George Harrison. The old footage is crisp and clean and shows a reluctant interviewee in Marley. Rather than use voiceovers, much of the story is told through interviews with the colourful characters from Marley’s inner circle.

The new interviews are with Marley’s mother, wife, mistresses and children (including Ziggy and Cedella) plus his band mates in The Wailers; Island Records owner, Chris Blackwell; infamous producer, Lee “Scratch” Perry plus Jamaican musicians, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, to name a few. They offer personal information, anecdotes and experiences about life with Marley and this lends it a feel that is much like the intimate and candid campfire conversations found in Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.

We learn that Marley was born in 1945, the son of a black teenage mother and an older Englishman and self-proclaimed military man. The latter was largely absent, only one photo exists of him on horseback and the military story couldn’t be verified. As Marley was a half-caste he was rejected by both sides of his family and treated like an outcast. It was only with time (and a lot of searching for replacement father figures) that he would gain acceptance and become a symbol for community and courage.

Marley’s formative years were lived out in barefoot poverty- from shacks in the countryside to the slums in Jamaica’s Trenchtown. Like many of his contemporaries, he saw music as the only way out. In the early sixties as a teenager he’d cut his first record, a cover that was largely influenced by American soul and R&B. Along with his bandmates, they’d put their own interpretations on this squeaky clean pop sound and fuse it with local ska music and island-tinged sounds, things that helped shape the reggae music for which he’d become famous for producing.

The story is one vivid and rich rags-to-riches tale. Marley would go on to sell millions of records and perform particularly explosive concerts in London, Zimbabwe and Jamaica and was building up his profile in America until he was diagnosed with cancer. Marley had a superhuman strength and believed he’d overcome it. He took very good care of himself, living life according to the principles of the Rastafarian religion, one he initially converted to but that ultimately gave him the spiritual guidance and direction he needed.

Bob Marley was also a man of simple pleasures. He loved music, cricket and football. When he was diagnosed with a melanoma on his toe different reports claim he didn’t want to get it amputated because he felt he then wouldn’t be able to dance or engage in his favourite sports.

This icon was also one electrifying figure. He was a hard-working and fascinating guy with a universal appeal and a particular hit with the ladies (he’d father at least 11 children with seven women). While Marley does ring true to all of this, it also gets under the skin to provide information about the more honest and less rosy aspects of his personality. So while passionate about work, life and love, he too was an absentee father who could also be a stubborn perfectionist, driven to keep making music and not stop at anything (not even an assassination attempt).

Marley is long at 145 minutes but the length is warranted in order to do to the subject matter justice. He was much more than a chilled-out pot smoker; he used his magnetic personality and charisma for good. While constantly questioning where he fit into the world, his ultimate dream was to bring people together and this documentary shows these heart-warming moments, like when he got leaders of the opposing political parties in Jamaica to shake hands at his show. This spirit also drives the film’s awesome ending where we see people from all reaches of the globe coming together to sing his much-loved music, the enduring legacy of hits that includes: “Get Up Stand Up,” “No Woman, No Cry” and “Could You Be Loved”.

Marley is an informative and absorbing look at the chilled-out legend. It shines with colour and vibrancy, much like its complex and enigmatic subject and the equally stellar music he made. The latter is included in the proceedings and is bound to win over a new generation of fans. This documentary succeeds because it received the assistance and support of the Marley family and those closest to the reggae poster boy. They’ve all come together for a celebration, some filled with wide-eyed nostalgia and others wanting to get to the truth and strip away at the mystic reverence that surrounds him. This film – like the man – will transcend generations and race because it is one animated look at the private and public life of an icon that had so much heart and soul. It’s a beautiful life.

Review score: 4.5 stars

Originally published on 2 June 2012 at the following website:

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