“This is my identity,” says Bob Marley, gesturing toward his trademark dreadlocks during a rare interview clip with the man himself in “Marley,” Kevin Macdonald’s generous, absorbing, family-authorized docu on the late, still-reigning king of reggae music. There’s enough evidence of Marley’s oddball intelligence, sexual magnetism and social idealism here to suggest he was selling himself short with that quote, but if he remains somewhat unknowable after 144 minutes in his company, it’s hard to say whether film or subject is at fault. The inordinate length of this otherwise colorful, accessible pic represents a fixable obstacle to crossover success; festival programmers will surely be jamming.
The time has long been ripe for a large-scale cinematic tribute to Marley, among the most generationally transferrable of 1970s musical icons: His “Legend” album may still be the soundtrack of student dorms and middle-aged dinner parties alike, but for many, cultural awareness of the man behind the gravelly, unhurried voice doesn’t extend far beyond the marijuana mascot of a million flea-market T-shirts.
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Macdonald, returning to traditional docu territory after last year’s interactive experiment “Life in a Day,” possesses the right blend of stylistic muscularity and pop sensibility for the project, indulging mythology to some extent while mining just enough tangy sociopolitical context to steer the proceedings clear of hagiography. Linear in structure but knotty with detail, courtesy of a broad array of talking, occasionally conflicting, heads, “Marley” should be thorough enough to stimulate both the uninformed and the devoted.
Particularly compelling is the sub-narrative it presents of a social rebel nonetheless tormented by his own mixed-race heritage. The cause of childhood bullying, it also became to him a bothersome reflection of his mostly Caucasian international fanbase, while the melanoma that wound up killing him at the age of 36 is pointedly attributed by one commenter to “the whiteness in him.” Discussion of such insecurities, in addition to tart descriptions of his domestic life from his wife, mistresses and children, does much to dispel the widely held notion of Marley as a kind of blissed-out naif, although Macdonald can’t resist one too many shots of the vital, verdant Jamaican landscape to re-romanticize things a little.
Musically, “Marley” is shorter than might have been expected on concert footage, though the soundtrack is obviously a delight. Macdonald and music supervisor Liz Gallacher compensate for some heavy-handed cues for Marley’s hits by underlining the emotional significance of obscurities like “Cornerstone,” written about his absent father and played onscreen, in the film’s most affecting non-archive sequence, to his half-sister Constance.
Ace d.p. Alwin K uechler, arguably overqualified for such a project, can presumably take much credit for the woozy glow of the contempo sequences. Allowing for overlength, Dan Glendenning’s editing elegantly organizes perspectives past and present, in alternately complementary and conflicting sequence.