There is a scene in Marley where the camera pans over the lush hills of Jamaica as a demo of ‘No Woman No Cry’ plays in the background. The view is absolutely magnificent and one gets a sense of the spiritual depth of Bob Marley’s songs. The late poet and musician has always had a mystical quality to him, from his devotion to the esoteric religion of Rastafarianism to his untimely death that led to his musical deification, and Kelly Macdonald’s latest documentary seeks to deconstruct the life of this man whose lyrics have proven to be both liberating and transformative.
Done mostly through a series of interviews with the people who have crossed paths with Marley, this documentary traces the roots of his music and philosophy. MacDonald doesn’t focus on Marley’s songs and songwriting process per se, but he tries to paint a picture of the experiences that shaped his musical sensibilities. For example, we see the racial politics in Jamaica at work when Marley as a young kid was ostracized even within his family for being the son of a white man and a black woman. This early sense of marginalization coupled with living in the squalid slums of Kingston builds on his legacy as a singer of the people, of the oppressed. Macdonald does a pretty impressive job at making sense out of Marley’s anti-colonial, countercultural message by looking at these aspects of his life. And as much as this documentary is a inspection of Marley’s personal and professional lives, this is also a close examination of Jamaican and Rastafarian culture.
The best part of the movie is the archival footage of his concerts that remind us what an electrifying performer he was. When Marley sings, he always seems to be in a state of transcendence, giving him an almost messianic aura. The movie even makes an explicit attempt to compare the Rastafarians’ reverence to Emperor Haile Selassie to their worship of Bob Marley. It is thus extremely heartbreaking to see him in the twilight of his life as he tries to fight the battle against cancer that he knows he can not win. He might have started his life as a simple reggae singer, but he ended it as a god among us.