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movie review

Bob Marley in a scene from Kevin Macdonald's documentary "Marley."MAGNOLIA PICTURES

There's a line between propaganda and documentary, a divide that Marley director Kevin Macdonald adroitly blurs and dances on blatantly. His movie is authorized (if not commissioned) by the family of the dead dorm-room hero and reggae superstar. Marley is highly watchable, finely crafted legacy preservation – and it's either a white-washed sham or awesomely shaded.

Early in Macdonald's chronological 145 minutes, the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is shown arriving by plane to Jamaica in the 1960s. Selassie was seen by the Rastafarian movement as a messianic figure, and so his state visit was highly momentous. He is greeted at the airport by ecstatic mobs.

In 1978, Marley was living in self-imposed exile in London. With political violence in Jamaica at a high, the No More Trouble singer was brought back to his homeland to headline the One Love Peace Concert. As with Selassie, Marley's landing on the tarmac in Kingston is framed as something near heaven descending.

Was Marley a god? No. A super-spiritual musician? Yes.

Macdonald, whose previous credits include 2006's The Last King of Scotland (a fictional account of the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin starring Forest Whitaker), does an excellent job of tracing the messages of Marley the songwriter back to the Marley the man. Or, in the case of 1970s Cornerstone, Marley the boy. In the film, Marley's friends, family members and fellow musicians describe him as a shunned boy, unrecognized by his father. And so he grew up to sing: "The stone that the builder refused, will always be the head cornerstone."

The film has received much attention for its innovative marketing, involving premieres last month on Facebook, iTunes and theatres outside Canada. On May 19, Ziggy Marley (son, reggae artist and the film's executive producer) chats live on Facebook.

Macdonald has received a lot of credit for revealing his subject's flaws. That's naive. Yes, the One Love believer's hyper-infidelity and freewheeling procreation is discussed. But marriage is a narrow Western concept, the film seems to assert. Some men can only handle one woman; Marley, who was actually quite "shy" and had women flocking to him, could "handle more." Adoring wife Rita explained it all away with the notion that she had risen above the rank of wife to the loftier role of "guardian angel." The flings, then, were no thing.

(As an aside, if Macdonald ever did question Rita about her 2004 claim that Marley had raped her in 1973, the episode never made it into the film.)

The most ludicrous segment has to do with the get-up-stand-up Rastafarian visiting Gabon and its ruthless ruler Omar Bongo. What's up with that? Oh, Bob hadn't realized Bongo was a dictator, and, hey, what the heck, as long as he made the long trip, might as well make the best of it and give the concert and bed Bongo's daughter.

I'm coming to believe that Macdonald couldn't be buying all this sycophantism. And so he presents his doubts subversively, like a political prisoner blinking out Morse-code messages while delivering a captor's propaganda. Marley's camp approved of the one-sided account, while Macdonald assumes smarter watchers will take his obvious half-truths as a signal that not all is as it seems.

More likely, I'm overrating the director's nuance. And I'm probably overrating the transgressions of a deeply inspiring icon. Marley the film wonderfully explains its subject's music. As for Macdonald's message, I'm just not sure.


  • Directed by Kevin Macdonald
  • Classification: PG

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