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Marley: Good to the Last Beat

Marley movie poster

Bob Marley is one of the most influential and intriguing figures of the 20th century. So, the making of a documentary about Bob Marley’s life is therefore a highly anticipated event, especially when that premiere takes place in Kingston. The massive crowd which turned out to Emancipation Park, on Thursday night to see Kevin MacDonald’s documentary Marley was certainly a testament to Bob Marley’s continued resonance with Jamaica.

For the night, Emancipation Park became a melting pot of all Jamaicans and numerous visitors. By 6:30pm the park was already hosting hundreds who swarmed before the screens waiting for the scheduled 8:00pm start of the movie. They wait would be very long as 8:00 brought only the start of the formalities of the event. By the time he took the podium, MacDonald was thankfully brief. “He’s your man, he’s not my man,” he said. “I hope I’ve done him justice. If not, see me after.”

No one should have had reason to see him after the film, other than to offer him congratulations. Marley manages to marry information and entertainment presenting an intriguing look at the life of a man who became a legend. It is at times deep and at others whimsical and of course, there was the heavy infusion of Marley’s music.

McDonald (The Last King of Scotland and Life in a Day) is a great storyteller. The best part of his artistry is that he knows how to get out of the story’s way and allow the narrative to unfurl almost organically. Marley benefits tremendously from this technique as well as excellent cinematography, a wealth of still images from all aspects of Marley’s life, interesting perspectives from the characters who peopled Marley’s life. MacDonald squarely places Marley within the context of Jamaica’s slave history suggesting this had a great impact on creating the revolutionary that became Marley, by starting the documentary at the Door of No Return. The film artfully takes you from Marley’s early earliest years of squalor in St. Ann and Trench Town through to his eventual rise to superstardom them takes a poignant look at his death. It also manages to show his worldwide impact which continues to resonate around the world.

One of the most anticipated elements of the film was the idea that it will reveal previously unknown facts about Bob. And in a way Marley manages to live up to this. For example, although it provides little biographical information about Bob Marley’s father (other than the fact that he rode a horse) it manages to the impact of the rejection from the patriarchal lineage on making the man and his music.

Bunny Wailer, his strange twang and his shoes that were falling apart are among the intriguing characters who contribute to this narrative. Wailer revealed some interesting details about Marley’s early life in St. Ann as well as the early years in their music. The film also features commentary from Rita Marley, Bob Andy, Allan 'Skill' Cole, Neville Garrick, Judy Mowatt, and Cindy Breakspeare. However Peter Tosh is relegated almost complete silence, hardly receiving a mention in the entire film. Interestingly, although he is hardly spoken about, MacDonald appears to allow the camera to linger on Tosh, allowing his tall imposing form to speak for itself.

Indeed, Marley is very eloquent in its silences. The relative silence and absence of the Marley children is also an intriguing element of this film. Only Cedella Marley and Ziggy, the two eldest, are featured. So it is very curious that one sees none of the other children which invites numerous questions as to the decisions and politics which went into that decision.

Additionally, although Chris Blackwell is one of the film’s Executive Producers, he is not allowed to dominate the film. Blackwell has in the past received an inordinate amount of credit for the development of the Reggae music industry. And although MacDonald does not interrogate Blackwell’s relationship with Marley or with The Wailers, limiting his screen time also says a lot.

But most importantly, in many ways Marley allows Bob to speak for himself, through archival interviews and most importantly there is his music ranging from the early dance driven ska beats to the rousing Reggae that made Marley to stuff of legend.