“Marley” – Impressive Portrait of Robert Nesta ‘Bob’ Marley

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The spiritual musician Bob Marley led an extraordinary yet a mysterious life and died as a world figure, shortly after reaching 36. There have been truths, myths, and half-truths about his music and life that brought forth political and cultural influences all over the world. Marley’s charismatic and challenging personality was as engrossing as his music which became the staple of coffee shops and dorm rooms. Director Kevin MacDonald’s documentary biography, “Marley” (2012) provides a comprehensive history, explaining Bob Marley’s contradictions, achievements, and cultural significance.

The documentary begins in an old fortress in Ghana and a man recites the history of a big iron door, named “Door of No Return”. The door led to the sea and let through millions of shackled slaves, who were all shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The horrendous journey made by those men is alluded to have shaped Marley’s life, music, and later his belief system. Bob Marley was born in poverty in a remote Jamaican village ‘Nine Mile’ (in 1945). His mother was a 16 year old unwed black teenager and his father was white member of the British Royal Marines (aged 65).

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We learn about his upbringing and how he was seen as an outsider, by both the black and the white communities. The first photograph of Marley was taken at the age of 12, around the time he and his mother moved to slums of Trench-town. Marley’s fellow musicians – Bunny and Peter Tosh – finely explains the early 60’s musical setting in Jamaica, where Marley recorded some singles before forming his successful band named ‘Wailers’. He also later joined a marijuana-smoking religious sect, ‘Rastafarinism, which preached Afro-centric gospel. Rastafaris saw Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as a messianic figure.

The documentary portrays his musical career that fused local and international forms to develop a distinctive type of ‘reggae’ music and also his casual approach to family and marriage life, with wife Rita. We are informed that Bob fathered eleven children by seven women and had wide-variety of lovers, including Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare. However, the significant parts that defined Marley were the episodes of political violence in Jamaica and the self-imposed exile in London.

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It is said that on one occasion when Marley went on to meet his father at his construction offices, he was turned away. Marley then wrote the ‘cornerstone’ song (‘the stone that the builder refused will always be the head cornerstone’). Later, we see him persuading rival political leaders of Jamaica – Michael Manley and Edward Seaga – to shake hands onstage (shortly after being shot for his in-between political standards), in his ‘One Love Peace Concert’ (1978). Such little moments gives us glimpse into the complex personality of Marley.

Director McDonald offers us different interviews from his family and different kinds of family, each passing on certain assessment of Marley, which sometimes contradicts with one another. Marley was diagnosed with Melanoma in 1977. British impresario Blackwell says doctor wanted to cut off his toe to stop the spread of cancer, while his friends say that the doctors wanted to amputate his leg. In the end, Marley didn’t allow both options to occur. On discussing his love affairs, there are also two opinions: claiming that he was shy, while few others saying that he can handle more than one woman. At one point, Marley’s female lawyer asks ‘Do you know Bob?’ It’s just a laid-back question but it makes us feel that we can’t know Marley through few interviews or from this one documentary. He lived only 36 years, but his biographies are numbered in double digits. However, Kevin McDonald strongly declares the view of Marley, who was a humble man, rose from the slums of Trench-town and ended up becoming the voice of poor and oppressed all over the world, even though he evenhandedly addresses the issues of infidelity and freewheeling procreation.

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On the flip side, it must be said that for those who are uninitiated to Marley and his works, it may not seem so alluring. The documentary also spends a little much time on his pot consumption and love life, than finding answers for vital questions like: what was his creative process? What made his music so popular? Apart from marijuana and Emperor Selassie, we never get to know how Marley’s derived his spiritual and political belief from the Rastafarian. Clocking at 145 minutes, MacDonald sort of stays in the middle: neither a polished account nor a powerful one.

“Marley” will be a thoroughly engrossing experience for the enthusiasts and fans of this deeply inspiring icon, while it offers a rough glimpse for the uninitiated.

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