Condensing an entire life into just two and a half hours is a tall order. Real lives are messy, asymmetrical things, and forcing a narrative onto someone’s life is usually a disservice to what someone actually experienced. (It’s a common problem with bad biopics.) Ideally you’d want to find the essence of a person and present it with as little fudging as possible.
That task is even more difficult if your subject is someone extremely famous. In this case, it’s Bob Marley. Here’s a guy who mixed pop and politics and whose own racial background was integral to his development as an artist. His music is everywhere, and his image is as recognizable as a corporate logo or Che Guevara.
That kind of ubiquity means the idea of Bob Marley is well known while the actual person gets lost in the cultural noise. In my own case, I knew the music and liked it well enough, but knew very little about the guy who wrote and performed it. With Marley, director Kevin Macdonald gives us a compelling portrait of the man rather than the idea of the man. In the process, he also gives us a contender for the best documentary of 2012.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Release Date: April 20, 2012 (theatrical, VOD, and Facebook)
Marley takes us through Bob Marley’s life from birth to death. There’s a little prefatory bit in Ghana at Cape Coast Castle, a major slave port, which provides just a touch of his ancestral roots and some historical scope about Jamaica and the Atlantic slave trade. We then move on to his mixed-race background (his father was white and his mother was black) and how it set him apart, and his early days in Nine Mile, where there was no electricity and the nights were lit by the moon, the stars, and the fireflies. The progression is chronological, which gives every event a sense of cause and effect.
There’s actually a traditional approach to film’s presentation as well: archival footage, actual documents, talking heads. By constructing the film in this deliberate fashion, Macdonald stays out of the way as a filmmaker and allows Bob Marley’s family and friends to unpack his life. They’re sympathetic but not too fawning — it’s the way friends talk about departed friends. There’s sometimes a thin line between celebrating a life and hagiography, and I think Macdonald stays firmly grounded in celebration. Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella seems especially critical of her father’s rampant infidelity even if her mother Rita seems to take it in stride.
Beyond the personal grounding in Marley’s biography, it’s important to show the evolution of his music as well. The film succinctly explains the development of ska into reggae. In one interview, ska’s described as good for drinking beers and dancing while reggae’s more spiritual. Another interview considers reggae in terms of anatomy: the drums are like the heartbeat, the bass is like the spine. My favorite, though, is bandmate Bunny Wailer’s onamatopeia for the classic reggae sound: oom-boom chicka, oom-boom chicka. Once you hear it, you cannot not hear it.
Just how well made is Marley? In one scene, you watch Bob Marley’s half-sister and half-brother listen to the song “Cornerstone.” They’re told that Bob Marley wrote the song after a meeting with the white side of his family turned sour. You can hear the tinny oom-boom chicka faintly through the headphones along with some of the lyrics. (One of the key lines from “Cornerstone” is “Do you hear me? Hear what I say!”) The half-siblings nod along and look up and to the side — the natural thing people do when they’re processing music — and then they comment on what they’ve heard.
It’s so compelling in the film that I felt myself lean forward a little in appreciation of the audacity of the moment. It’s not just two people related to Bob Marley listening to music. It winds up being a moving point of recognition about race, rejection, and art by a family member they hardly knew. There’s a certain truth to small moments like these.
What Macdonald understands in his presentation of Marley’s life is that there is something potentially resonant underlying every action. The chronological accumulation of events makes this moment of rejection especially painful. And the spiritual element of reggae also finds its way into the song, which references Psalm 118:22. Whereas in the past Bob Marley had to bear the racism, as an adult he could comment on it and overcome it. A song has the potential to contain the whole of a life up until the moment of its composition — it’s the secret biography of sound.
In some ways, the above moment also made me realize how you can condense the whole of a life into just two and half hours without making it feel false. While real life is never as perfectly formed as a story, people do strive for that shape of narrative in their actions. It’s not about imposing your own narrative on the life but finding the narrative connections in the life that was lived. Macdonald’s role as a director is more like a delineator — he’s finding the shape of Bob Marley’s life rather than shaping it himself.
It’s not an easy life to shape, though, which makes Macdonald’s accomplishment all the more impressive. Not only do we get to hear some of Bob Marley’s final show, and not only do we hear a gospel-style demo of “No Woman, No Cry,” but we also get to see some of the major social and political upheavals in Jamaica. As the urgency of the situation increases, it seems like Bob Marley’s need to do something about it increases. Again, there’s more weight to all this given the steady accretion of chronological events and his increased influence and ability to speak out as his career grows.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that the film comes out tomorrow: 4/20. Yuck it up. It’s a perfect coincidence and a funny bit of marketing, sure, but maybe the obvious association is a way to draw more people into the film. And hopefully people just don’t think of it as a stoner picture because it’s really a film that’s made to move people; Marley is a movie comprised of multiple transcendent moments.
It’s hard not to be moved as Bob Marley fights and succumbs to cancer. It’s difficult not to feel the awe and sadness during the footage of his funeral. It seems like all of Jamaica had joined in peaceful lament. The transcendent moment that stands out most for me is the One Love Peace Concert, which was put on as an attempt to quell political violence between the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). The deadly, drawn-out clash between the PNP and the JLP almost claimed the lives of Bob Marley and some of his friends.
As “Jammin'” comes to a close at the concert, Bob Marley calls out to for unification between PNP and JLP leaders. He keeps asking for them to come together for the good of the people over that sustaining thump of the rhythm section. On the screen, decades after the fact, you can feel the crowd calling for the same kind of unity. There is genuine electricity, everything is alight in St. Elmo’s fire. The chills rush through my arms as I type this. It’s as if the world is at the verge of some great change — that, like they said about Joe Strummer, Bob Marley is playing as if he could change the world in a three-minute song.
I used to think that idea was just about the conviction and urgency that artists have about their work. But watching Marley, I understood it could really happen. Even if the world’s not changed for good in the course of a song, it can give us a glimpse of that better world. Maybe a three-minute song can change the world for three minutes. It’s there in Marley, a fleeting bit of peace, but at least it happened. It was real for an impossible instant, and might have lasted if the music didn’t end.