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George Luke

Directed by  Kevin MacDonald
Certificate 15, 144 minutes


At two-and-a-half hours, Kevin MacDonald's Marley is isn't quite the longest 'rockumentary' I've ever seen (that honour goes to Peter Bogdanovich's four-hour Tom Petty doc Runnin' Down a Dream). But it's definitely the most celebratory.

Bob's son Ziggy was executive producer on the film, which combines footage and photographs with on-camera interviews with surviving relatives, friends and musicians. Of all the talking heads, Bunny Wailer stands out most, speaking with candour, warmth and good humour about his boyhood friend and collaborator.

From the start, Marley had a knack for turning  biblical themes into autobiographical songs. His very first recording, 'Judge Not' reflected his experiences as a mixed-race kid shunned by blacks and whites. The popular Wailers song 'Small Axe' (which incorporates a verse from Proverbs) was a dig at players in Jamaica's music industry who had teamed up to form a cartel called Big Tree. That's not even to mention 'Exodus'...

Marley has been accused of being hagiographic. Given that it was made with his family's approval, I guess that's to be expected. The film does seem to be making excuses for him - especially on the issue of his relationships with women. (He had 11 children with seven different women.) His wife Rita says that Bob's concept of marriage wasn't the same as the Western concept, and so technically he wasn't unfaithful to her! Even when another of his 'babymothers' says she felt hurt by the way he treated her, there's an element of 'He's a naughty boy, but I like him' about it.

Politically, he comes across as both militant and very idealistic, some would say naïve. We hear eye-witness accounts of how he survived an assassination attempt, and the 'Peace Concert' at which he brought the leaders of Jamaica's two warring parties together (symbolically, at least). As the money poured in, he opened his home to the poor and gave freely to people in need. When asked by a journalist if he was rich, he replied by asking his questioner how he defined wealth.

Marley only played in two African countries. It's easy with hindsight to question his choice  (Gabon and Zimbabwe), but the latter makes sense in the context of the time. The former Rhodesia had just gained independence from an oppressive apartheid regime, and all of Africa was full of optimism for its future (as I remember from being schoolboy in Sierra Leone). Accepting Omar Bongo's invitation to play in Gabon brings to mind the rogues' gallery of R&B acts (Beyonce, Usher, Mariah Carey, etc) who played for Gadaffi. But, as surviving Wailer Junior Marvin says, 'We never knew he was a dictator until we got there'.

It's said that Bob converted from Rastafarianism to Christianity towards the end of his life. It's not mentioned in the film - save for his daughter's observation that there were 'a lot of preachers' around him at the time. Whatever his religious persuasion, the Bob Marley presented to us in this film was a deeply spiritual man. And as the closing montage illustrates, his influence on popular culture has been truly global.

George Luke