Wednesday, April 18, 2012


It took prodigious talent, drive, and creative vision for Bob Marley to turn what amounted to ghetto music from a marginalized nation into a global phenomenon, so it would be lovely to see a documentary about him that approached that level of genius. Martin Scorsese, who was originally scheduled to make this one, is as good a bet as anyone to have pulled that off. But director Kevin MacDonald, who wound up with the project, seemed like a smart fallback. MacDonald’s brilliant 2003 documentary, Touching the Void, wove in painfully realistic reenactments with talking heads and archival images to play like a first-class thriller. So the ploddingly linear parade of talking heads that is his Marley lands with a particularly sodden thud, reducing a life on the frontier of a pulsatingly vital art form to a deadening recital of biographical facts.

If the movie lover in me felt detached and disappointed as I watched Marley, the Marley lover in me found enough new facts and footage to stay engaged—just barely. I didn’t know Marley had reached out as a young man to the family of the white father he barely knew and been rejected, or that the pain of that experience had inspired the lyrics to Cornerstone. It was interesting to learn that he was so relentlessly competitive that he turned everything into a contest and did his best to win, even when he was playing with his own kids. And it was fun to see Bunny Wailer, still looking good and clearly living life on his own terms, as he reminisced about his old friend and band mate.

But as most of Marley’s friends and family members talked about him, his spirit felt blurry and faint, far less vivid than their love for him, or their nostalgia for their youth, or the pain they still carry as a result of his actions. The film keeps returning to what it sees as the defining conflict of Marley’s life: the abuse he took as a boy for being a light-skinned “pickney,” as mixed-race Jamaican children were called in his day, and the consciousness that created in him of being connected to everyone, at the same time that it made him feel like an outsider wherever he went. “Me don't deh pon the black man's side nor the white man's side,” he says in one of the few short interviews in which he speaks for himself. “Me deh pon God's side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.”

Meanwhile, his music gets frustratingly short shrift—we never hear a song play out in full—and other aspects of his character are barely touched on. How does the man we keep hearing described as shy and gentle, even humble, jibe with the “rough,” emotionally distant father Ziggy and Cedella remember? And what exactly was the spiritual message he was so devoted to spreading through his music?

MacDonald dutifully covers a trip the Wailers made to Africa to support black African independence, only to find themselves palling around with a dictator. He covers the concert they put on during an election year back home as political violence there began to worsen, hoping to spread a message of peace only to get used by one of the candidates. And he includes a mention of the thugs who hung out with Marley when they weren’t working for one or the other political party, fomenting the violence that was tearing the country apart. But he leaves those facts stranded in a thicket of less revealing details, shorn of commentary or analysis.

Was Marley politically na├»ve, was his conception of politics so spiritual that he didn’t think these kinds of machinations mattered, or was he feeling his way through confusing times, maybe forming a world view that his untimely death (he died of cancer at age 36) kept him from fully developing? The film never even raises that question, let alone answering it, and that robs the final montage of Marley images around the world of the inspirational punch it’s meant to deliver.

Just what does Marley mean to the people who are still wearing his T-shirts and hats and listening to his music? Are they responding to his peace-and-love message of one love? To his civil rights exhortation to get up, stand up? To his black power call to chase them crazy baldheads out of town? Or are they just part of the global army of apolitical stoners for whose sake, I’m guessing, the movie is being released on 4/20?

Written for The L Magazine

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