A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 21, 2012.
Everybody knows Bob Marley's music, but the man is a puzzle. Growing up with almost nothing, how did he turn himself into a global superstar, one of very few to emerge from the developing world? Was it songwriting ability, innate charisma, the luck of catching on to the irresistible reggae beat? While there's no simple answer, much fascinating detail is brought to light in this straightforward but absorbing documentary from British filmmaker Kevin McDonald, which follows Marley from birth to death and draws on new interviews with his bandmate Bunny Wailer, his wife Rita, and others who knew him well.
Hardworking and ambitious, the Marley revealed here is a far cry from the laidback stoner of popular myth. Like the rest of us, he proves on examination to be a bundle of contradictions, generous yet ferociously competitive, his idealism underwritten by an intense sense of personal grievance. Within his lifetime he was treated like a prince – and he behaved like one, moving into a Kingston mansion just down the road from the governor-general (“Bringing the ghetto uptown,” he liked to say) and holding court among his friends and hangers-on.
Though from an outsider's point of view Marley seems more charismatic than likeable, there's an authentically fond tone to most of the anecdotes related here; in retrospect, the numerous women in his life seem willing to forgive his failure to stick around. On the other hand, his children still harbour some bitterness: Ziggy Marley, one of the film's producers, frankly describes his father as “rough, rough, rough”.