It's that time of year when really big event movies are beginning to make their presence felt, with salvos of naval cannon-shells desperately competing with hurtling mystic hammers and even more arcane weaponry. You would think that now, more than ever, smaller and less obviously commercial movies would be forced out of theatres, but this is proving not to be the case – distributors are not stupid, and understand that there still exists a class of moviegoer who isn't necessarily interested in references to obscure comic-book characters or genre movies of any kind. And so they quietly release films to which your more Bohemian or highbrow punter will flock, safe in the knowledge there will be no appearances from beauty-queens-turned-popstrels or nonagenerian self-promoting comics editors.
Currently using this strategy is Marley, an off-the-wall prequel to The Muppet Christmas Carol... no, of course it isn't. It helps if this sort of film has a 'name' director attached to it, and in the case of Marley the film-maker responsible is Kevin Macdonald. Macdonald is someone whose career has skipped cheerfully back and forth between drama and documentary, including the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, and the not-quite-so-brilliant The Eagle. Marley finds him firmly in documentarian mode as he turns his attention to Jamaica's most famous son, Bob Marley.
The film opens with a striking sequence which, to be honest, it never explicitly follows up on, visiting one of the former slaver fortresses off the African coast, from where thousands of Africans were dispatched to the Caribbean. From here it relocates to Jamaica itself and the remote rustic township where Marley himself was born and grew up. What follows is on one level a somewhat familiar story of rags-to-riches, hard work and talent leading to immense popular success (with some fallings-out along the way), and concluding with tragedy and premature death.
But on another level this is the story of a man who was in many ways more than just an entertainer. The film doesn't shy away from Marley's status either as an adherent and (arguably) great populariser of Rastafarianism (although the exact details of his ganja intake are not really explored), or his political importance within Jamaica itself. There is potential here for an absolutely fascinating story and the film takes full advantage of it.
This is not to say that this is a dry or heavy piece of work, of course. The fact that most of the interviewees are Jamaican, often speaking heavy patois, fills it with life and colour, and there are some cracking anecdotes along the way. A founder member of the Wailers recalls their manager insisting the band rehearse in a cemetery in the middle of the night, on the grounds this would eliminate any danger of stagefright later in their career. Later on, when discussing an attempt on Marley's life, Macdonald asks his manager if the hit was professionally organised. 'It was about as professional as anything gets in Jamaica,' comes the deadpan reply.
Marley himself emerges as a captivating figure, albeit a mass of contradictions as well. His passion and vitality fill the movie, even though there's relatively little footage of him speaking in it. The sheer poverty in which he grew up is really driven home when a caption labels the earliest known photograph of Marley – and he is already well into his teens. How strange it is that this man, one of the greatest icons ever to emerge from the developing world, and a spokesman for an Afro-centric religion, should in truth be the son of a British imperial functionary with a distinctly murky background. How much of Marley's later life was influenced by his barely-existing relationship with his white father the film leaves the viewer to decide, but it is clear growing up as an outcast was hugely significant.
Very commendably, the Marley family – who were closely involved with the production – have resisted the temptation to censor the story, and the film is honest about some of the less laudable aspects of Marley's life. He was, it seems, ruthless in pursuit of commercial success, even when that appeared to clash with his spiritual beliefs. His children still seem to be struggling to come to terms with losing him at such a young age, especially given he seems to have been a rather distant father. Above all, his widow emerges as a figure of almost supernatural forbearance, given his numerous infidelities (including having children by seven different women).
It's often said that the mark of a really great documentary is that it takes a subject with which you're not that familiar and makes it come alive for you. Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm not the biggest reggae fan, although I do have a vague but genuine love of the work of Jimmy Cliff (and Cliff appears in the movie, which was a welcome surprise) – but this film is rich enough in texture and wide enough in scope to engross from beginning to end. And, needless to say, the soundtrack is stunning from beginning to end – before it, I would have said I knew only two or three Wailers numbers, but tune after familiar tune keeps coming throughout the movie. If the film fails to really address the central issue – what exactly was it that transformed Bob Marley into such a huge star, still the face and voice of reggae three decades after his death? – then I suspect that's because no-one truly knows the answer. That he is still a massive presence is confirmed by the closing credits, where people from all corners of the world cheerfully share their versions of classic Marley numbers. A fascinating and very human story, well told by Macdonald.