Chicago Sun-Times - - WEEKEND PLUS - ★★★½ Orig­i­nally re­viewed April 18, 2012


This doc­u­men­tary about the reg­gae le­gend will be rere­leased in the­aters and on vir­tual plat­forms July 31 to mark the year he would have turned 75.

‘Mar­ley,” an am­bi­tious and com­pre­hen­sive film, does what is prob­a­bly the best pos­si­ble job of doc­u­ment­ing an im­por­tant life. Au­tho­rized by all the mem­bers of his scat­tered fam­ily and with rights to all of his mu­sic and a wealth of pre­vi­ously un­seen film and video footage, it shows the growth of a le­gend. What’s in­ter­est­ing is that Mar­ley seems not to have had a con­crete goal for his ca­reer, other than to use mu­sic to bring peo­ple to­gether. His in­stincts were good, and he fol­lowed them, and to an un­usual de­gree, he found in­de­pen­dence in a white-ruled mu­sic in­dus­try.

Mar­ley was born in 1945 in the ham­let of Nine Mile in St. Ann Par­ish, Ja­maica. Footage shows rude shacks, no elec­tric­ity, bare­foot chil­dren and a sense of com­mu­nity. His mother, Cedella, was 18. His fa­ther, Nor­val Sin­clair Mar­ley, was 60, a white cap­tain in the Royal Marines. Nor­val mar­ried Cedella and pro­vided cash sup­port, but was all but un­known to the boy, who was bullied be­cause of his mixed an­ces­try. It was his Rasta­far­ian re­li­gion that helped him think above racial cat­e­gories.

Us­ing in­ter­views from sur­vivors of those years, “Mar­ley” re­calls how Bob be­gan per­form­ing in grade school and recorded his first sin­gles in 1962, with friends who were later to be­come part of his group, the Wail­ers. His mother got work as a ho­tel maid in Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware, and mu­si­cal his­tory might have been dif­fer­ent if he’d stayed in Amer­ica. But after two vis­its, he re­turned home, formed the Wail­ers with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, and be­gan to cre­ate the kind of mu­sic that at­tracted lo­cal and then world au­di­ences. Un­der­ly­ing it was the reg­gae beat that was the foun­da­tion of mod­ern Caribbean mu­sic.

With Rita, his long­time wife and fre­quent singing part­ner, he had three chil­dren and adopted two of hers. The film re­ports he had 11 chil­dren in all. What is rather mirac­u­lous is that they all agreed to this film by Kevin Mac­don­ald and granted rights to his mu­sic. Con­tem­po­rary footage shows his crowds swelling so rapidly that he was soon do­ing sta­dium con­certs and trav­el­ing with a rock-star en­tourage. Yet he re­mained con­cerned with Ja­maica. He turned down of­fers to run for of­fice, but re­turned to Ja­maica at the height of a hard-fought elec­tion, trig­ger­ing the film’s most pow­er­ful mo­ment, when he brings two op­pos­ing politi­cians on­stage to shake hands.

In 1977, Mar­ley seems to have de­vel­oped symp­toms of ma­lig­nant melanoma. He chose to over­look them, and a can­cer that could have been treated in its early stages claimed him when he was only 36.

The pas­sages de­pict­ing his fi­nal years are tremen­dously touch­ing. He be­gan to seek treat­ment when it was al­ready prob­a­bly too late and con­tin­ued to tour, even though his fans noted with con­cern his weight loss and in­creas­ingly frail ap­pear­ance. Fi­nally, he went to a clinic in Switzer­land, where the snow-cov­ered moun­tains pro­vided an alien land­scape against which his death ap­proached. The doc­u­men­tary fea­tures in­ter­views with some of those who treated him and de­vel­oped great af­fec­tion; he had be­come in a sense a sec­u­lar saint. He flew to warmer weather in Mi­ami, where he died on May 11, 1981.

This film has no great rev­e­la­tions and will start no scan­dals — if in­deed there are any. It’s a care­ful and re­spect­ful record of an im­por­tant life, lived by a free spirit, whose “One Love” seems to be known in ev­ery land.


The Bob Mar­ley de­picted in “Mar­ley” set about his mu­sic ca­reer with no con­crete goal ex­cept bring­ing peo­ple to­gether.

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