With ‘Marley,’ director Kevin MacDonald sees the life and work of a music god, through the haze

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'Marley' opens today (Courtesy Bobmarley.com)
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There are a host of hackneyed explanations for the origins of the term 4/20, and many of them revolve around one Robert Nesta Marley: it’s the anniversary of his death, or his birth, or was some great milestone in his life, like the first day he got stoned, or maybe some really great jam session.

The number/date’s actual roots are completely inane, but to try to work Marley in is somewhat natural given his unfortunate status as a posthumous pot poster-boy. It's awfully perfect (in being awful, mostly), then, that the first really ambitious, definitive Bob Marley documentary, Kevin MacDonald's two-and-a-half-hour Marley, opens on the international weed holiday.

It’s unfortunate, since the realities of Marley’s life and career are far weightier than the screening date implies. More than anything, Marley actually feels like a long-awaited, much-needed counterpoint to the prevailing 4/20-loving, dorm-poster-sized distillation of the reggae legend.

In the three decades since his death, there has been an endless stream of bios and photo-books on Marley, with only a few of any quality. As far as film tributes, these have mostly been tribute concerts and live-footage compilations, though two hard-to-find docs do exist. Still, not much in terms of a large-scale effort to tell the musician’s story. And at the same time, of course, Marley’s commodification has crystallized his reputation into a green, yellow, and red-striped counter-culture cliché (T-shirts bearing his image have all the maddening culture-white-washing of Che merchandise). Painting an accurate portrait of Bob has been made more difficult by his sprawling survivors (he had 11 children by seven women), music-licensing struggles, and conflict over his estate’s estimable earnings.

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For MacDonald (the director behind The Last King of Scotland and One Day in September), then, Marley represented a high-stakes undertaking and a huge opportunity. He took on the project after both Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme had given it up, and began working with the blessing and guidance of Bob’s son Ziggy.

Filmed in somewhat of a hurry (“Look, I want to get the film done, so you can do what you like” the producer told MacDonald), Marley is the successful product of good luck and brute force. MacDonald laced together rare pieces of footage from the reggae icon’s life and dozens of interviews with anyone who was ever close to the him—his widow Rita, Lee "Scratch" Perry, a janitor with whom he once lived, to name just a few—to thoroughly unpack an icon whose story has been muddied. In simply editing a massive quantity of talking heads and old footage into the chronological narrative of his life, MacDonald clears a haze that’s built up for 30 years.

Part of the haze: the April 22 date of the One Love Peace Concert (close enough to 4/20, but no cigar ... or Philly blunt … sorry). That day in 1978 actually marks a sober, pivotal moment in Marley’s story and in the film. Marley took the stage at the National Stadium in Kingston to perform for more than 30,000 fans at a time when political gang violence in Jamaica was at a frightening apex (and in a location where he’d been shot a year earlier). Meanwhile, passionate supporters from all realms of Jamaica’s political world were pressuring Marley to choose which party to align himself with, knowing he would be able to help shape Jamaica’s political trajectory in the months to come.

Footage of the concert and the accompanying commentary from interviewees gives us a powerful sense of Marley's influence on the course of Jamaica's political and cultural history. During his set, he made the split-second decision to call the leaders of Jamaica’s two opposing political parties on stage, joining their hands together above his head in a gesture of peacemaking to the triumphant eruption in cheers and applause of the entire audience. What living musical artist has that much legitimate political sway?

While the film is heavy on political history and light on a dissection or chronology of the music Marley and the Wailers produced, the interviewees offer enough beguiling anecdotes and sound bites to make the film warm and inviting. MacDonald chose wisely to speak with some of them in locations that blend neatly with the Jamaican scenes depicted in vintage footage.

A vision of Bob Marley as a stalwart political and cultural activist emerges, buoyed by the kinds of small human details that make a life; at times touching and at others purely comical. For instance, we learn that managers handling Marley in the early days of his career pressured him to change his first name to Adam, convinced that he would have more crossover appeal (he refused). We also learn that the Wailers were compelled to practice in cemeteries in the middle of the night—amid ghosts and spirits, or “duppies”—to build resistance to stage fright.

We get commentary on the technical difference between ska and reggae (“reggae was born out of an illusion”), and hear tales of young Bob, “Robby,” taking on manual-labor jobs with Chrysler and Dupont in Wilmington, Delaware. We learn of his obsession with physical health (he compulsively ran and played soccer) and the tragic irony of the skin and brain cancers that killed him. We hear a simple and gorgeous gospel-style demo of “No Woman, No Cry,” with Peter Tosh on the piano. We learn the true extent of Marley’s appetite for a variety of sexual partners and learn that, very early in his career, it was a relationship with white Jamaican Cindy Breakspeare, who won the Miss World competition, that got Marley his first big break in music. And we hear, from both his pained-looking daughter Cedella and his most famous scion, Ziggy, how Marley could be somewhat callous and competitive, challenging his children to foot races down the beach with no intention of ever letting them win.

The film is geared toward a more general audience: those who know of Bob Marley and his music but want to meet the man. Yet even for Marley obsessives the film offers a fix in the form of previously unseen footage and in a deep exploration into the mysterious and heartbreaking months leading up to his death, which were marked by spiritual perseverance in the face of very bad medical advice.

Then there will, of course, be those stoners. If there’s a cloud of smoke in your theater rest assured the film’s subject no longer is marred by any such haze.