Rare is the artist who transcends his art, but that's what happened to Nesta Robert Marley of Nine Mile in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica. He not only became, and remains, the iconic figure of reggae, but is also a worldwide Legend, as the title of his posthumous greatest-hits collection, the genre's best-selling album, indicates. Described by Jann Wenner as "the Third World's first pop superstar" during his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bob Marley serves as an inspiration to many all around the world because of the messages in his lyrics and the example his ascension from a small Jamaican village set for so many who find themselves in similar circumstances.
'Marley' is a documentary about the musician's all-too brief life, which ended on May 11 1981 at the age of 36 due to cancer. Director Jonathan Demme had initially been involved with the project and assembled an edit, but he left after reported disagreements with producer Steve Bing. Replacing Demme was Kevin Macdonald, known for the documentaries 'One Day in September' and 'Touching the Void'. He has created an entertaining, informative biography.
After a prologue set on the shores of Ghana, where the story of a great many with African ancestry can be traced, Marley's story begins in Jamaica where his father "Captain" Norval Sinclair Marley and his mother Cedella Booker, who is interviewed along with other family members, met. Marley's biracial background and little contact with his father had an obvious effect on Marley growing up. His stepbrother was Neville 'Bunny' Livingston, who along with friend Peter Tosh, formed what would eventually become known as The Wailers.
Marley got involved with music at an early age and Macdonald shows his progression through audio clips and performance footage. At sixteen years old, Marley recorded the single "Judge Not" which went nowhere. In 1963, The Wailers backed by The Skatalites released their first single "Simmer Down," a ska tune responding to crime and gang violence of Kingston. It eventually went to #1 on the Jamaican charts. In 1966, Marley married Rita and moved to the United States briefly, where his mother lived. Upon his return to Jamaica, he embraced Rastafari, which among its beliefs held that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the reincarnation of Jesus. Marley grew out his hair into traditional dreads.
In 1972, The Wailers met with Chris Blackwell from Island Records. He wanted an album from them, which they agreed to make, resulting in Catch a Fire with seven of the nine tracks written by Marley. Blackwell wanted them to tour and promote the album, but Livingston balked because they weren't getting paid for it, so he skipped the American leg of the tour. Together they followed up with Burnin', which would be their last record together. Not caring for the direction things were heading, including Marley becoming the main focus, Livingston left the band to go solo and Tosh left soon after returning from the U.S. tour. In 1974, the newly dubbed Bob Marley and the Wailers, which included the I-Threes, female back-up singers that included Rita, released Natty Dread.
As their success continued to grow around the world, so did Marley's influence. Jamaica found itself approaching civil war in the late '70s, and Marley was repeatedly called in to ease tensions between the warring factions. In December 1976 before a free concert, there was an assassination attempt on his life, and some who were there at the time tell of the harrowing circumstance.
Though he was fortunate to have escaped the gunman's bullet, he wasn't as lucky in July 1977 when the first evidence of a malignant melanoma wasn't taken as seriously as it should have been. He continued to create music and tour in the remaining four years until the cancer took his life. Yet, like all legends, he lives on as this documentary attests.
Made in association with his family and estate, 'Marley' is an almost completely positive portrait of the man, as expected. The worst element mentioned is his infidelities, a few of which led to other children. Rita doesn’t seem bothered by it, though the passage of 40 years likely helped heal those wounds, though daughter Cedella isn't as forgiving. If there were critics of Marley's out there, it would have been good to hear from them. The same goes for musicians, like Eric Clapton who helped draw attention to Marley with his cover of "I Shot the Sheriff," but their omissions don't diminish the documentary.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnet Releasing presents 'Marley' on a 50 Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a standard blue case. The menu appears after trailers for 'The Magic of Belle Isle', Jiro Dreams of Sushi', 'Take This Waltz', and 'The Hunter' as well as an ad for AXS TV, formerly the HDnet channel.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1. The documentary uses a variety of sources, so the quality varies from the modern footage of interviews and b-roll to the archival material of Marley performing in concert and being interviewed on television.
The difference in image appearance is revealed early on as the opening sequence shot at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana shows a bright image with red rooftops popping off light blue skies and the vivid colors worn by the beachgoers. The black cannonballs help reveal good contrast when combined with the white walls. Fine details are evident in the textures of weathered buildings and cannons. The documentary then cuts to Marley live in concert, recorded with 16mm at best, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was a smaller film format. The image is very grainy and dark. Edges bleed into each contributing to a very flat look, but the music and Marley's passion on display help alleviate these issues.
Modern-day Jamaica offers vivid colors with its lush green foliage and rich brown dirt. Old black and white film of Trench Town, Kingston has many white specks and black scratches through it. The modern footage looks free of grain while the older the material the more naturally appears. The image looks free of digital artifacts for the most part, though, during a scene when Marley's cousin talks about their great-grandmother, his chin blurs when he quickly raises it.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master 5.1 Surround. The modern footage sounds pristine, while the archival material can have slight bits of hiss. I would describe the dialogue as clear, but a few Jamaican subjects are open captioned because of how thick their accents are.
Of course, Marley's music, which should be played loud, makes the most of the surrounds, coming across warm and dynamic. The subwoofer highlights Aston Barrett's solid, nimble bass work. The track also offers better than anticipated ambiance for a documentary. In the beginning while shooting in Jamaica, the rain can be heard during a break of an interview, and children can be heard. The mix has a good balance though the maximum number of elements together is usually two.
For those who want to celebrate Bob Marley's life or learn more about him, 'Marley' is the documentary for you. Magnolia delivers a Blu-ray with very good A/V qualities, though the extras are slight considering once the ads and deleted scenes are set aside, there is one and a half special features. I would have liked even more about the man or the documentary's production, but the film is satisfying on its own.