Subtlety dies hard in the films of Kevin Macdonald, who over the last decade has created a cinema of broad strokes and calculated bombast. Sometimes Macdonald’s blunderbuss aesthetic works wonders, as in the gut-wrenching documentary Touching the Void, an engaging juxtaposition of talking-head interviews and ambitious reenactments detailing an extreme climbing adventure gone terribly wrong. Mostly, though, Macdonald seems obsessed with simplifying whatever subject he addresses, favoring a more visceral version of their relationship to historical record. It’s a problem that infects this overblown biopic on Ida Amin, The Last King of Scotland, and to an even greater extent his latest documentary, Marley, a laborious, if not loving, look at the life, career, and death of reggae icon Bob Marley.
Marley starts at the humble beginning of its subject’s life in 1940’s St. Ann, Jamaica and progresses linearly until Marley’s tragic death from malignant melanoma in 1981 at the tender age of 36. Every event in between, including such major milestones as Marley’s discovery of music and songwriting, his adoption of the Rastafarian lifestyle, and the formation of the Wailers in 1963, is contextualized through interviews with family and friends, not to mention endless spools of archival footage and music. Notable interviewees include Jimmy Cliff, Ziggy Marley, Bunny Wailer, and the singer’s first wife, Rita Marley, the film’s most lasting and tortured voice. When the doc focuses on her tumultuous yet endearing relationship with Marley, the film manages to scrape away the popularized image of the singer and find a deeper, more complex vision of mutual sacrifice.
But this small vein of nuance becomes stifled by Macdonald’s rigorous romanticization of Marley’s place in pop culture. Amid the barrage of information concerning Marley’s interracial heritage, the singer’s musical exploration of identity and ideology, and the artistic disagreements he had with Tosh, there’s little wiggle room to contemplate him as a human being. Macdonald never finds a way to balance the myth and the man, especially throughout the film’s most kinetic segment documenting the assassination attempt that nearly killed Marley during the political upheaval in mid-1970s Jamaica. As striking images of violence and unrest fill the screen, often scored to Marley’s greatest hits, the elemental impact of the singer’s sublime rhythms establishes another potentially interesting avenue of discourse: the relationship between Marley’s lyrics and social justice. But here more than ever, Macdonald can’t help but rely on the one-sided explanations of his countless interview subjects, who tend to paint Marley’s conflicts with government leaders and his relationship with the Jamaican people as easily defined moments of confrontation. Macdonald never questions their memories in order to create a more substantial analysis of Marley as a lightning rod for political change.
The bloat and heft of Marley‘s narrative scope leaves the viewer awash in a sea of historical “facts” with very little sense of the human experience behind the curtain of celebrity. There are a few wonderful kernels of perspective, like when Jimmy Cliff explains that Marley “came from a wailing environment,” where music was often the only way he could make sense of the poverty and crime of his childhood. But Macdonald tries to cover so much ground that he avoids the specific exploration of any one idea, instead jam-packing tons of information into a cinematic package that often feels ready to burst. Ultimately, Marley isn’t so much an epic documentary as it is a Wikipedia page forcibly stretched to fill a 145-minute running time.