Any respectable retelling of Bob Marley’s life has a lot to cover. In the 1970s, drive, charisma, and especially talent made Marley one of the biggest music stars in the world, but understanding his ascent and his music means understanding the difficult circumstances from which it emerged. Born poor in rural Jamaica, Marley was raised primarily by his mother, who later moved their family to the city of Kingston. There, he had to overcome prejudice stemming from mixed parentage—his father, who died when Marley was a boy, was white—as he struggled to make a name for himself in the ’60s music scene of Jamaica, a field overcrowded with talented musicians and unscrupulous businessmen. Working with The Wailers—Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer—and then later with a band that was The Wailers in name only, Marley went global in the 1970s, singing tough songs of peace and messages of unity derived from his Rastafarian faith (which itself takes some explaining), as political violence threatened to take his native country into anarchy.
That’s a lot for any film to unpack, and The Last King Of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald deserves a lot of credit simply for keeping the narrative coherent as Marley, his cradle-to-grave documentary, plunges into the world that created Marley and the effect his music had on that world. The film patiently establishes what it was like to grow up impoverished as an outcast in Jamaica, as MacDonald talks to everyone he can access, including Marley’s wife Rita, Bunny Wailer, cousins whose family refused to acknowledge Marley’s existence when he was young, and a fellow musician/custodian who lived with Marley when both were staying in unused rooms at a Jamaican recording studio in the ’60s. That diligence continues as the film progresses through Marley’s career, and though Marley’s son Ziggy and Island Records chief Chris Blackwell served as executive producers for the film, the subjects all give frank, open interviews that shine a light on one part of Marley’s life or another.
Yet in spite of all the diligence and frankness, Marley remains an enigma. Though those interviewed don’t shy away from talking about his beyond-casual approach to marital fidelity (and the many children that attitude created), he otherwise seems like a man driven entirely by a set of high-minded ideals and an urge to express those ideals in song. That may be partly because Marley himself gave so few interviews. Or it may be because in some ways, that’s who Marley was. (Though MacDonald does reveal him as a man driven by artistic and commercial ambitions alike.) As an attempt to get beyond the two-dimensional messianic good-vibes image that’s helped make Marley a dorm-room icon in the decades since his death, Marley feels like an admirable first step, but often only just that.