I spotted a bottle of something called Marley’s Mellow Mood, “a new line of 100 percent natural relaxation beverages,” in my neighborhood deli just a few hours after seeing Kevin Macdonald’s documentary on the reggae and Rasta emissary—a reminder of just how crassly the Jamaican legend, who died of cancer in 1981 at 36, has been commodified, as anyone who has ever spent more than an hour in a college dorm can attest. Fortunately, Marley—created, like the drink, with the cooperation of the singer’s family—avoids (until the closing credits) oversimplified one-love-praise-Jah sloganeering. Thoroughly researched and packed with phenomenal archival footage, it’s a rousing tribute to a mesmerizing performer that forgoes blind hero worship.
Taking on Marley after Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme dropped out, Macdonald—who has directed both narrative features and docs and is best known for his Idi Amin biopic, The Last King of Scotland (2006)—interviews 60 people on three different continents, many of whom remain entranced by the singer’s talent and charisma. But a few harbor resentment: Long-reclusive Bunny Wailer, Marley’s bandmate in the Wailers from 1963 to 1974, still bristles when recalling Bob’s willingness to go along with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell’s “exploitative” practices. (Peter Tosh, the third member of the trio, who also left in 1974—and who was murdered in 1987—is heard in an audio clip referring to the British music mogul as “Whiteworst.”)
Others refuse to take the bait. When Rita Marley, interviewed poolside, is asked how she felt about her husband’s infidelities—Bob had 11 children from seven different relationships—she smiles and notes that she had loftier matters to consider. “It was like an evangelical campaign,” Rita says of touring with her spouse as a member of the I-Threes, Marley’s regal, all-female backup group; she saw her role as Bob’s “guardian angel,” chasing, when summoned to do so, ladies out of his dressing room. The film’s most fascinating talking head, Rita also has perplexing thoughts on Bob’s biracial makeup. Of the melanoma found on her husband’s toe in 1977, she avows “it was the whiteness in him” that caused it.
Whiteness, in a way, did bedevil Marley, who was always puzzled by the lack of black audience members at his sold-out concerts, especially in the U.S. (He finally had great crossover success here in 1980, when his band opened for the Commodores.) Marley, often touted as the first third-world superstar, reveled in his popularity while dismissing material wealth as something only crazy baldheads would care about: “My richness is life,” he says in one interview.
The vague, blissed-out Rasta pronouncements he’d make to the press were countered by the specificity and the ferocity of his songs, as in “War,” whose lyrics consist almost entirely of a speech Haile Selassie made to the U.N. in 1963. Footage of Marley performing that anthem and others—whether in the States, the U.K., Zimbabwe, or, most famously, Kingston in 1978, when he stopped, however briefly, the political civil war destroying his country—reveals the fervor of the “evangelical campaign” Rita remembers. Onstage, Marley is transcendent, enraptured. The mood is mystical, never mellow.