As far as documentaries on the late, reggae-singing revolutionary Bob Marley go (and I've seen a couple in my time), Marley is definitely the most comprehensive—almost exhaustingly so. Running at two hours and 24 minutes, the film almost refuses to leave the screen until the audience gets a fully documented view of Robert Nesta Marley's journey. Man, I almost feel sorry for the stoners who'll show up at the theater, baked outta their minds, thinking they'll just get a quick, brisk refresher course on one of their heroes. Will they be able to sit through it all—especially when they start getting the munchies?
Thankfully, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) also makes Marley a visually beauteous doc. He peppers the first half with lush aerial shots of Jamaica, but he keeps the focus on the artist's life and times. As Marley's music serves as background music for every scene, Macdonald interviews all the right people: family, friends, collaborators, business associates, nearly everyone who was ever in his band. They tell us how Marley, the mixed-race son of a black woman and a white man, began his career as a musical artist by getting with fellow future reggae icons Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer and forming the Wailers. After Tosh and Wailer leave the band, Marley takes charge of the Wailers, bringing in background singers the I-Three (which included wife and "guardian angel" Rita) and making reggae music inspired by his Rastafarianism.
His status as both an artist and an activist also made him a target. When he planned to do a free concert easing tension between political groups warring in the streets of Jamaica, unknown gunmen assaulted Marley, who miraculously suffered only a few minor wounds.
And keep in mind this is just the first hour and a half. There's a good hour left of Marleyana—his self-imposed exile in England, his support of Africans who were struggling with apartheid. Marley also doesn't shy away from showing Bob's flaws and contradictions. Although he was a strict, devoted husband and father, that didn't stop him from having dalliances with other women (including a Jamaican Miss World) and having children with several of them.
His contradictions continued in his professional life. He claimed to have no ambitions, yet he cultivated a global audience, in particular, black people. At the height of his fame, when he was selling out venues full of white folks, he even accepted an offer to be the Commodores' opening act, just to get stateside black folk on his side. (I love how the movie acknowledges how much of a pain in the ass it often can be for black people to introduce other black people to something new and different.)
More than anything, Marley revels in characterizing Marley not only as an influential, groundbreaking artist, teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony in a lesson that continues after his death from melanoma, but as a man with a relentless, indomitable spirit. Even when he found himself playing in venues hit with tear gas, Bob Marley was a buffalo soldier right until the end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No lady, no cry."