Even non-fans tend to remember Bob Marley’s influence on music as a reggae pioneer. But even reggae aficionados might not know the details of Marley’s life behind the scenes.

That’s why Marley is such a definitive documentary of its subject, who died of cancer in 1981 at age 36. The big-screen biography is a tribute first and foremost (it was authorized by the late musician’s family), but it chronicles all aspects of his life in way that’s appreciative without resorting to mere hagiography.

The no-frills approach of British director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is chronologically straightforward and thorough almost to the point of overkill.

The film opens with a glimpse into Marley’s impoverished childhood in a Jamaican slum, growing up an outsider because of his mixed-race heritage. He developed a love for music at an early age, especially the unique sound that became known as reggae.

Macdonald proceeds to trace Marley’s gradual rise to fame worldwide, which ultimately determined his legacy. However, the film also chronicles his influence not only musically, but also spiritually, socially and politically, especially in his native Jamaica.

But it doesn’t dwell only on the positive. The film explores Marley’s controversial involvement with the cult-like Rastafari religious movement and his reputation as a free-spirited womanizer who lived by his own rules and fathered children by numerous women. It’s even a cautionary tale about seeking the type of medical treatment that Marley tragically avoided late in life.

Marley features an impressive array of photographs, archival footage and interviews with family, friends, colleagues and music industry insiders. There are plenty of quirky personalities on display along the way.

The soundtrack is an obvious highlight, featuring many rare cuts and some obscure early recordings. If there’s one complaint, however, it’s the tendency to truncate the songs and abridge the concert footage.

Still, the film should offer plenty of insight even for Marley’s most ardent fans, but that’s not a prerequisite for enjoyment. It might have the side benefit of introducing a new generation of fans to his music.

It smartly captures his dynamic personality both through the words of those who knew him, and more importantly, through his enduring music.


Rated PG-13, 144 minutes.