Whenever an artist’s family authorizes a documentary, there’s a worry that it’s going to be a rosy, public-relations piece. “Marley’’ is not that. It’s an outstanding, warts-and-all look at reggae legend Bob Marley, who died young of cancer at age 36 in 1981 but not before becoming a Third World superstar.
Marley overcame a ghetto upbringing in the Trench Town neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, to become a gifted writer of socially conscious, spiritually uplifting reggae anthems. If you love this music, you’ll be dazzled by the generous 66 songs in the film but you’ll also appreciate the ruthlessly honest look at his life, right down to his rampant womanizing. He had 11 children by 7 women. It’s astonishing to hear how his wife, Rita (who was also one of his backup singers), put up with it. They had separate rooms on the road and “we never fought about women,’’ she says, though one of her daughters, Cedella, adds there were times when her mom was “hurting.’’
In many other ways, though, Marley was a beacon of hope for the Jamaican people. He and his band the Wailers brought songs of freedom to places as far away as Africa, where Marley played at Zimbabwe’s independence day (he paid out of pocket to take the band there). He also set box office records at the time in Europe by playing to 2 million people in six weeks. And when he returned home between tours, he gave away a lot of money to destitute Jamaicans who came to visit his compound in Kingston, on the appropriately named Hope Road. There is archival footage of all of it, from his concert stops to his homecomings, enhanced by newly compiled interviews with everyone from Cindy Breakspeare (who was crowned “Miss World’’ in 1976 and was one of his girlfriends), to former band members, relatives, boyhood friends, business associates, and even his Rastafarian doctor.
The film is ably directed by Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for best documentary for “One Day in September,’’ about the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Macdonald is a hard-nosed filmmaker not given to sugarcoating. And there is none here, starting with graphic footage of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, from which thousands of enslaved Africans were once shipped by boat to the New World. The film then cuts to Marley singing “Exodus’’ and its famous line “Let the captives free!’’ Macdonald also emphasizes how much of Marley’s music was inspired by his rejection as a youth, since he was a “half-caste’’ — his dad was a white British Army officer and his mother a black Jamaican. He only saw his dad a few times and he was mocked by many Jamaicans in school.
Marley was signed by Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, the executive producer of this film with Marley’s son Ziggy, but Blackwell’s history is not sugarcoated either. Marley’s former bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer are said to have been very distrustful of Blackwell’s attempt to turn the Wailers into a “black rock act,’’ though Marley ultimately approved the move and the others quit the group.
This film is long. But it grabs one’s senses and won’t let go. It is visually exhilarating, especially the aerial, mist-enshrouded views of Marley’s first home deep in the country in St. Ann’s Parish. And, as you might expect, you can almost smell the ganja coming off the screen. A joint or a pipe bowl is never far from the action. But it also moves to an emotional climax as Marley, dying of cancer, is shown at a holistic clinic in Bavaria where he lived much of the last year of his life. A nurse describes Marley as “very patient.’’ And Marley never left a will, because he never thought he was going to die. He even issued a statement in his last year that he would tour again soon. It is this spirit that makes you love Marley despite his flaws.Steve Morse, a former Globe critic who now teaches an online course in rock history at Berklee College of Music, can be reached at email@example.com.