May, 2012, Documentary



This detailed review of the life and music of Jamaica’s most significant singer/songwriter/performer manages to make its subject accessible to audiences who know little about reggae’s foremost practitioner. Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) returns to his roots as a documentarian here and he has the good sense to allow Marley’s musical colleagues to speak at length about how reggae found a global audience. Since his fellow musicians form a relatively small group, Macdonald’s able to provide a spirited analysis of the man and the music with which he’s so closely associated.

 Born into a extremely poor family in the lush rural foothills of the Caribbean’s largest island, Marley lived a secluded life until his mother decided to move to Kingston. There, he grew up among the hard-packed dirt streets and ramshackle shanties of that racially divided city, eventually coming into contact with a self-taught musician named Peter Tosh who taught Marley and two friends of his how to play guitar, keyboard and percussion. The four worked out the rudiments of reggae’s unique style, which emphasizes the 2nd and 4th beats of a melody bridged by a drum accompaniment on the 3rd.

 Recording his first song in the early 1960’s at age 16, Marley and his fellow musicians initially called themselves “The Wailing Rudeboys, then “The Wailing Wailers” before finally settling on “The Wailers”. Despite their early success, the band found itself financially out-maneuvered by local recording companies. Marley thought relentless touring could prove a workable road to success, when several of the founding members of the group refused to adopt that strategy, Marley reconfigured the band and set out on a peripatetic career spanning 15 years and 4 continents. Over time, the Wailers oeuvre produced lyrics that blended sharp-eyed social protest with lilting admonitions urging universal brotherhood all wrapped in simple, street-level language.  

 An avowed Rastafarian who sported a daily ganja-weed  habit, Marley surrounded himself with back-up singers (who provided many of his 11 children) and became a political heavyweight in his native country in the 1970’s. Citing religious beliefs, he refused surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and died in 1981 at the age of 36.

 If Marley’s career sounds like late-stage 60’s hippie-history in the U.S. , this engaging visual/oral biography presents a man whose personality emerges from his music as shrewd, insightful and joyous. Whether it’s an accurate portrait as well can be determined from this film - - but learning about the man from extended interviews with and his friends isn’t a bad way to spend two hours and 15 minutes, since you’ll be gently messaged by the musical form he helped create and champion.

 The verdict? A musical winner, especially for those of us who where well past the concert-going stage when Marley burst on the scene.

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