A single film attempting to tell the entire life story of Bob Marley has an awful lot of ground to cover. Perhaps inevitably, Kevin Macdonald's new documentary Marley feels as if it's only skimming the surface of the singer's life and art, even with 145 minutes with which to tell its story, but it's an entertaining and illuminating ride for viewers less well-versed in Bob's biography. It also wisely distances itself from other fawning documentary portraits of musical stars by interviewing only those who knew Marley and could offer firsthand anecdotes. We don't need trite contributions from commentators or other stars to help us understand how and why Bob Marley was such a huge figure in world music – it's evident every time the subject of Macdonald's film steps in front of the camera.
Clips of Marley performing or being interviewed underscore his astonishing charisma and help take the film to a level that Macdonald's filmmaking doesn't look like reaching on its own. Before this director came on board, Marley was briefly set to be directed by Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme – both filmmakers with a track record in similar documentaries – and I'm not sure that Macdonald has the feel for music that those directors possess. His Marley is assembled in a conventional manner that sometimes feels rather dutiful in the manner in which it ticks off the key moments in Marley's short but eventful life. The pacing sometimes feels a little misjudged too, with the opening section, that deals with Marley's experiences as a mixed-race boy growing up in Jamaica, feeling particularly sluggish.
The movie picks up dramatically as it begins to address Marley's musical impact with The Wailers and his more widespread cultural impact as a proponent of Rastafarianism and reggae music. Interviews with Bunny Wailer attest to Marley's musical brilliance but also to the ambition and stubbornness that caused tensions within the band. Marley is portrayed as a contradictory character in many respects; often laidback but also so driven by his need to make music that he would sleep for just four hours a night when writing new material. He had an open door policy at his home and would happily hand out cash to whoever asked, but he was tough on his own kids, with both son Ziggy and daughter Cedella remembering how competitive he was in games with them. Marley also addresses some of the more contentious aspects of his life, notably his extramarital relationships (he fathered 11 children with 7 women), a fact that his wife Rita seemed at peace with – she even helped him clear women out of his dressing room when he needed her to.
Marley is perhaps at its most fascinating when dealing with the singer's anti-political stance, as he tried to remain neutral while Jamaica's warring factions tried to claim him as their own. As we watch Marley survive an assassination attempt and then stage a concert aimed at uniting his country, it's impossible to avoid being awestruck by his determination and courage. What contemporary star, at their height of their fame, would be capable of or willing to do such a thing? Later, at a concert in Zimbabwe to celebrate the country's independence day, Marley remains on stage even as others flee from tear gas. "Now I know who the true revolutionaries are," he said as his band members returned.
Marley works largely because these important moments are skilfully handled, and the unbearably sad climactic portion of the singer's life, as he slowly succumbed to a cancer that spread from his big toe, is deeply moving. The personal anecdotes offered by his friends and family – and by the nurse who treated him – are full of emotion, with Cedella's recollection of his father looking "so tiny" when shorn of his famous dreadlocks being especially resonant. She's no longer seeing the legendary figure he became; she's just seeing her father as he passes away. Marley does an effective job of exploring the man behind the icon, and it's the kind of film that encourages the viewer to listen to more of his music (frustratingly, only aired in snippets here) and dig deeper into his remarkable story. We are unlikely to see anyone like him ever again, and the closing credits emphasise just how vast and lasting his influence has been. It's a fitting way to end a film about a man who gave himself to the world.