It isn't until the end of Kevin Macdonald's beautiful if sometimes jumbled Marley that the impact the dreadlocked reggae star had - and continues to have - on pop music is brought home. As the documentary's credits roll, cameras capture fans on the street in Japan, in Brazil, in India, in the United States, grinning and singing Bob Marley anthems. Everybody knows the words, everybody knows the moves.
Dead since 1981, Marley is inarguably bigger and more influential now than he was at the height of his career in the late 1970s and early '80s, when his soulful, strutting, angry, aching songs brought international acclaim. Bob Marley and the Wailers packed stadiums. They sold records. They smoked giant spliffs and preached the gospel of Rastafari, a religion that embraced peace, cannabis, and their African roots - and a religion that views Haile Selassie as the second incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Macdonald, who won the best documentary Oscar in 2000 for One Day in September, and directed The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, is clearly a Marley fan. He tells the story of this skinny kid from the mountain country of Jamaica - raised in a shack on the side of a hill, then moving to the slums of Kingston with his mother - with archival photographs, early recordings, and interviews. (Marley also spent a brief period, when he was 20 and 21, living and working in Wilmington, Del.)
There are the folks you'd expect to see and hear: Rita Marley, Bob's wife; Ziggy and Cedella Marley, the two children they had together; Chris Blackwell, the colonial Jamaican who signed Marley to Island Records; Neville Livingston, a.k.a. Bunny Wailer, the wonderfully amusing and occasionally bemused ex-bandmate; and various sidemen and studio engineers. Marley's lawyer and one of his longtime managers get camera time, and a chance to put their client's professional life in perspective.
Marley, whose father was a white Englishman he barely knew, had 11 children by seven women, according to the film. His daughter Cedella talks with insight and anguish about how her mother rationalized, and compartmentalized, Marley's notion of free love. It's soon apparent that the reggae icon was not the best of fathers, and Cedella (named after her grandmother, Marley's mother) speaks with rueful resignation about the lack of attention she received.
What's shocking about Marley is how little film exists of the Wailers in performance. Bands more obscure and less interesting have music videos and concert footage that could fill a storage facility; Macdonald, who was given the go-ahead for the film by Blackwell and Rita Marley (who oversees her late husband's royalty-rich estate), had only a handful of scratchy 16mm films and videos to work with. Still, what there is conveys Marley's magnetism, and footage from the "Smile Jamaica" concert, a tumultuous event that followed an attempt on Marley's life, is, if not musically riveting, certainly dramatic.
But there is plenty of music in Marley, including exquisite alternative takes of early, essential songs. What also comes across is how, while life in the Marley camp was chaotic and ganja-fogged, he held to his core beliefs. His songs espoused freedom, love, and equality, and so, too, did his actions. Marley became a wealthy man in the last years of his life, but he gave much of his money away - people would queue up at the gates of his Kingston compound, and they would leave with cash.
Marley has its share of small but nagging inconsistencies. Some of the interview subjects are readily identified, as are their respective relationships with Marley. Others are introduced with little acknowledgment of their connections, or the level of intimacy they shared. The conflicting testimonials and blurred memories surrounding Marley's health are frustrating, too. He died from cancer that spread through his body and into his brain, from what was initially misdiagnosed as an infection in his big toe; it turned out to be melanoma.
So, this isn't one of those rock-star tragedies - no drug overdose, no plane crash, no suicide. But it's a tragedy nonetheless. As Blackwell notes, with more diligent medical care, Marley very well could still be among us.
That said, Marley celebrates the fact that its subject is still among us in the way that perhaps matters most: His music not only survives, it thrives.