It’s weird to see Bob Marley without that iconic thick head of dreadlocks, which he called “my identity.” Near the beginning and end of the epic documentary Marley, we do indeed see a closer-cropped Marley — in his youth, when he was covering American hits like “A Teenager in Love,” and close to death, when chemotherapy had ravaged his identity but not his spirit. The latter is a tragic sight, the former sort of comic. One revelation, for a casual Marley listener like me who hasn’t dipped into the zillion or so biographies written about him, is that Marley didn’t emerge fully-formed. Once upon a time he was Robert Marley, a kid trying to do something with “What’s New Pussycat”; like Richard Pryor, whom he resembled in those pre-dread days, he took a while to find his own voice. Once he did, the serenely ecstatic sound of it moved millions.
Marley is a family-approved documentary (Marley’s oldest son Ziggy is one of the executive producers), co-produced by Bob’s own label Tuff Gong, so if there were any truly troubling aspects of his personality — aside from some anecdotes about his competitive streak, expressed best in his full-tilt foot races against his toddlers — we don’t hear much about them. He comes through when he speaks for himself, most often subtitled for the benefit of Western ears that can’t decipher his light patois. By and large, many other heads do the talking for him. In the end, the songs explain him most eloquently. We hear bits of dozens of them, including the dorm-room standards “Could You Be Loved,” “Stir It Up,” “Jamming,” and “No Woman No Cry.”
If that last song is true, Marley must’ve cried a lot. As the film tells us, he fathered eleven children by seven women; only three were with his official wife Rita, who more or less looked the other way as Bob welcomed a wide variety of lovers, including one-time Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare. (Even a German nurse who treated Marley near the end tells us there was “a spark” between them.) When asked if Marley was charming, one woman looks bemused and answers “D’you know Bob?” Actually, we don’t, not really. When a man who only died 31 years ago inspires biographies numbering in at least double digits, it speaks of a man who was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Marley buys into the view of him as a humble Trenchtown kid who became the voice of the poor and disenfranchised not only in Jamaica but worldwide. (The film reaches a climax of sorts during footage of his 1980 performance at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day.)
A little bit is made of Marley’s mixed ancestry: he was the son of an Afro-Jamaican mother and a white Jamaican father. After visiting the father’s construction offices and being turned away, Marley wrote “Cornerstone” (“The stone that the builder refused/Will always be the head cornerstone”). We get a sense of a much more complex figure than the hagiography of the film is really equipped to deal with: even at two hours and twenty-four minutes, Marley feels like a well-rendered sketch, but still a sketch for all that. It’s smoothly drawn, though (and nice-looking: one of the cinematographers was Christopher Nolan regular Wally Pfister); director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) does manage to suggest the turmoil Marley rose out of and seemed to be a part of despite himself. Pressured to come down on one side or the other during a particularly fraught conflict between the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, Marley demurred, only to be shot in 1978. Soon after, he came out at his scheduled One Love Peace Concert and showed off his scars to the crowd.
“Holy Wound of the Left Arm of my Bob, I adore thee…” Well, the movie doesn’t go quite that far. The more relevant comparison would be to Achilles, though it was Marley’s toe, not heel, that started giving him trouble in 1977, portending the malignant melanoma that would later infest his entire body. This was thought by those close to him to be more of a caucasian disease than a black one, so if you take that all the way, the white man in his very DNA killed him. The movie doesn’t do much with this irony, nor the added irony of Marley’s sojourn to a holistic clinic in Germany, which barely a generation earlier would’ve treated an ailing Jamaican far less gently. Marley recounts a short life that seemed to straddle worlds and eras, and perhaps the definitive portrait will never be filmed or written. Until it is, though, there’s always the music.