A well-received 2012 documentary on the life of the reggae superstar Bob Marley, “Marley” is being re-released as a virtual screening through the Coolidge Corner Theatre and other venues nationwide to honor the singer’s 75th birthday. If you missed it the first time around, why should you bother now? Because it’s a fat beach-read of a bio-doc that covers every aspect of Marley’s rich life, and because it offers a balanced portrait of the man, despite being produced by family members who have every reason to lean into hagiography.
Mostly “Marley” is worth your time for the music — the songs you know and the ones you don’t; that driving stutter-step beat; lyrics of defiance and optimism that never go out of style and that feel assuredly pertinent to 2020. A line like “Don’t worry about a thing/ ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be all right” is detox to an anxious mind; “Get up, stand up/ Stand up for your rights” an exhortation to get back into the fight.
What Kevin Macdonald’s scrupulous documentary makes plain is how much Marley’s mellow righteousness was fueled by ambition. The singer was raised in a rural Jamaican hamlet before moving to the capital city of Kingston at 12, where he met Neville “Bunny” Livingston in the slums of Trenchtown. The son of a Black mother and a much older white father — the latter a government forestry worker who skipped town fast — Marley grew up taunted as a mixed-race “red pinkney,” which only hardened his determination.
In the wake of Jamaica’s 1962 independence, Marley and Livingston joined up with Peter Tosh to form the original Wailers, rehearsing for two years before they cut a record. It was worth the wait: “Simmer Down,” the debut, went straight to No. 1. Macdonald and his crew talk to pretty much everyone who was there and still alive, with Livingston (better known as Bunny Wailer) our main tour guide through the early days.
There are informational detours into the Kingston ska scene, the eccentricities of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, the musical fundaments of reggae, and the Rastafarian movement that infused all three Wailers with spirituality and sacramental ganja. With a visit to London and a meeting with Island Records head Chris Blackwell, the film documents Marley’s firm grab for the brass ring. He wanted to be a star, and not just in Jamaica. With his first album for Island, “Catch a Fire,” he was on his way.
“Marley” treats the years of growing international success as a time of exploration and consolidation, with some dangerous adventures on the way. As Jamaica’s politics split into warring factions on the right and left, Marley kept a foot in both camps until a planned “Peace Concert” was hijacked by Prime Minister Michael Manley’s election campaign and a gunman fired into the singer’s house one night. Marley, wife Rita, and manager Don Taylor were wounded, and shortly thereafter Marley was baring his wounded torso onstage to cheers.
The film paints a picture of a shy but intensely charismatic man who attracted women like crazy and who took advantage of it; Rita insists here “I was past the point of being Bob’s wife. We were on a mission.” Daughter Cedella is less forgiving, saying of her mother, “there were times she was hurting.” (Marley ended up having 11 children with seven different partners.)
So the legend was human — a tough-minded father, a fiercely competitive collaborator. Without those qualities, he probably wouldn’t have achieved what he did. “Marley” charts the expansion of reggae music across the planet and the singer’s success with it, and the only frustration Marley felt was his inability to reach a Black American audience more attuned to R&B and disco. Against his manager’s advice, he agreed to open for the Commodores at a 1980 Madison Square Garden concert; the show was a triumph. The next day, he collapsed while jogging in Central Park. A skin melanoma from a mistreated soccer spiking had over the years metastasized throughout Marley’s body; despite chemotherapy that rid him of his dreadlocks and a stay at a holistic clinic in Bavaria, he died on May 11, 1981, and was returned to a Jamaica that poured into the streets to mourn.
Four decades on, Marley remains a deceptively titanic figure in popular culture, his image instantly recognizable and his best-loved songs everywhere while the particulars of his life have faded. The greatest hits collection “Legend” is the second-longest-charting album in Billboard history (after “Dark Side of the Moon”), but how many people still dig into the individual albums? “Marley” is full of revelatory live performances and deep cuts — the soundtrack is on CD and streaming services and is recommended — but as big and big-hearted as it is, it could never be big enough to convey the immensity of its subject’s talent and reach.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Bob Marley, Rita Marley, Ziggy Marley, Bunny Wailer, Chris Blackwell. Available for virtual screening at coolidge.org/films/marley. 145 minutes. PG-13 (drug content, thematic elements, some violent images).