If you’re not familiar with the life and work of reggae icon Bob Marley, then Kevin Macdonald’s documentary “Marley” will be a revelation. If you are already a fan of the legendary singer, then the movie will play as an eloquent, eye-opening celebration that never descends into hagiography.
Documentaries about musicians, living or dead, are hard sells because we’re too familiar with the usual format: Lots of concert footage, interspersed with interviews with the artist and the people closest to him.
“Marley” is different. Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “State of Play”) previously experimented with the documentary genre in the harrowing mountain-climbing horror story “Touching the Void,” which used actors to re-enact the events that the real-life survivors were describing to the camera.
With Marley, Macdonald approaches his subject as if he were making a narrative film. No one tells us that Marley was born in the tiny village of Nine Mile in St. Ann, Jamaica. Instead, we see the impossibly small, ramshackle home where he lived as a child and hear from his neighbors and surviving relatives, including his wife, Rita, and son Ziggy, about how he grew up without electricity and which song was the first he learned to sing as a boy.
The movie is helped, too, by the extraordinary life the musician led. Far more complex than a mere rags-to-riches tale, “Marley’s” reach is far broader than “A Star is Born.” There is plenty of backstage drama documented openly and frankly, including the differences of opinion that erupted within the group when Island Records founder Chris Blackwell signed the group (in an audio recording, a former Wailers member is heard referring to the mogul as “Whiteworst.”)
But” Marley” also uses its subject to document prejudice and racism (his father was white and his mother black; for much of the 1970s, the singer’s audience in the U.S. was primarily Caucasian); how art can sometimes affect politics and history (a concert in Kingston in 1978 led to a pause in the civil war raging there); and how superstardom affects those standing under its shadow. Marley fathered 11 children with seven different women, and while some of his family members remain bitter and estranged, others (such as wife Rita) have made peace with the past and speak frankly about their decisions.
Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were once attached to direct “Marley,” and who knows how those versions would have turned out (Scorsese’s probably would have been a lot heavier on music). But Macdonald considers every conceivable facet of the singer’s life — his indifference to wealth, his strong Rastafarian beliefs, his patriotism and inner struggle with personal identity — so when you see him perform (including some extraordinary concert footage), you see far more than an artist plying his craft to an adoring public: You also see a man, flawed and imperfect, finding his way through with his music, constantly searching for his place in the world until that quest was cut tragically short.