April 19, 2012
The musical and documentary vibes are very, very good in "Marley," director Kevin Macdonald's portrait of the reggae revolutionary born Robert Nesta Marley in Jamaica in 1945. Documentaries fully authorized by the subject's surviving family members are rarely this rich. I knew and loved a lot of the music going in, though next to nothing about Marley's short life on the planet. I came out with a reaffirmed sense of the former, and an honest, just-this-side-of-hagiography understanding of the latter.
Macdonald works in both nonfiction and narrative realms ("The Last King of Scotland" being one of his best-known dramas), and his pleasingly straightforward chronological approach to the Marley story justifies the documentary's 145 minutes. Born to a Jamaican mother and an English father, Marley moved from rural Jamaica to Kingston when he was 12.
Cutting his first record ("Judge Not") in 1962, he found the beginnings of his style two years later with "Simmer Down," recorded with The Wailers. In the years leading up to his international fame, fame stoked by Marley's relationship with Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, among others, Marley came to symbolize Jamaica's struggles and the rolling cries of freedom in other countries.
And speaking of rolling ... though amped up by the media to Cheech & Chong level intake rumors, Rastafarian religious movement figurehead Marley's enjoyment of ganja is first referenced visually around the half-hour mark. Macdonald's interview subjects — Marley's family, bandmates and friends — take the time to reflect, rather than spit out a lot of boilerplate.
At one point, Jamaican recording artist and reggae songwriter Bob Andy explains his theory on the precise origin of the reggae beat, the gentle chucka guitar riff lending Marley's music its particular, seductive intoxication. Andy says the chucka (he calls it a shum sound) was an accident, an aural hiccup resulting from the recording tape delay. So the rhythmic trademark of reggae, he says, "developed out of an illusion."
The image of Marley as all peace and love and no complication was an illusion as well. Son Ziggy Marley, who shares a lot of his father's vocal quality and beatific charm, acknowledges Marley as "a rough man. Rough, rough, rough." Daughter Cedella Marley recalls her father instructing her: "Don't ever think you need friends."
Yet the music has been a friend to millions. That Marley never connected with a wider African-American audience puzzled and gnawed at him and his fellow musicians. Near the end, though, before cancer caught up with the superstar in 1981, things were changing, the fan base was expanding. "Marley" draws on a wealth of concert footage to augment Macdonald's newly shot sequences (including a couple of lovely aerial perspectives of Marley's homeland). It all flows from the shum. The man's musical and political influence was no illusion.
'Marley' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for drug content, thematic elements and some violent images)
Running time: 2:25
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