Ahead of the general cinema release this Friday of Kevin MacDonald’s documentary of Bob Marley, James Dickens reviews it for The Substantive.

I think it’s fair to say Bob Marley’s life was almost tailor-made for movie adaptation. The tough upbringing, rise to superstardom, political influence, religious excesses, womanising and eventual untimely and very public death was made for the big screen. Therefore I was very surprised at the lack of any cinematic depictions of the Reggae icon thus far.

However given the recent trend for musical biopics (Walk the line, Nowhere Boy, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll to name but three) the timing now seems right, and a biopic based on Bob’s wife, Rita’s, Autobiography is currently in production. Marley though is entrenched firmly in the documentary camp, more along the lines of Julian Temple’s Joe Strummer feature ‘The Future is Unwritten’.

This film has taken a while to get off the ground. It was initially supposed to be directed by Martin Scorsese but due to scheduling conflicts, it was passed onto famous music film maker Jonathan Demme. He then also dropped out, citing ‘creative differences’ with producer Steve Bing. So it was left to director of Touching the Void and Last King of Scotland, Kevin MacDonald, to finally finish the film for its 2012 release.

So the question really is, was it worth the wait?

Rife with cinematic storylines, for a documentary Marley is not short of drama, and the conflict over being a young mixed race boy in a predominantly black village was the first of these to be dealt with. MacDonald described this lack of belonging as the source of much of his drive and ambition. The Marley family were closely involved in the making and this is very apparent throughout. Through the unique access to footage MacDonald was given but also perhaps the slightly sanitised nature of the film. However it did feature two of his main ‘Baby Mothers’ as well as his wife. (Marley fathered 11 children to 7 different women. Officially, anyway.)

The story then moves on through the rise and subsequent break-up of ‘The Wailers’, Marley shooting to global icon status, details which are already in the public arena. While a significant part of the story, I found this section of the film was overlong and baggy and was more compelled by the things I knew less about, such as his very loose interpretation of his marriage vows (a theme which ran through the whole film) and his fundamentalist following of the Rastafarian religion and it’s ‘King of Kings’ His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

His part in resolving the political gang violence afflicting Jamaica was the chapter of the film which I knew least about and which struck a chord the most. Flying back from London to make the political leaders of two warring factions come on a concert stage and shake hands, calling an end to the ongoing violence, was an extremely powerful moment and showed a man whose influence had far superseded that of simply music.

Marley’s life came to an end in 1981 after a 4 year battle with a cancer which originated in his big toe. According to this account, his love of football put him off having the toe amputated and this ultimately cost him his life.

The story is well told, the cinematography is decent and there is certainly previously unseen footage in there. However at 2 hours 24 minutes, it was perhaps 45 minutes too long, and clearly indulged some of the contributing family members too much.

So back to the question, was it worth the wait? It’s a decent film, but features nothing that particularly benefits from being seen on the big screen. It may be more suitable viewing on a BBC4 slot on a Sunday evening, cup of tea in hand.

James Dickens