UK director Kevin MacDonald has over 15 documentary credits to his name, including the Academy Award-winning One Day In September and the much-loved Touching The Void, but outside of a fly-on-the-wall Jagger snapshot (Being Mick), the ambitious and staggeringly comprehensive Marley marks his first proper music doco. “There's very little footage of Bob, and one of the reasons it's so hard to make this film – you can't do a conventional rock documentary. And that makes him more mysterious. He never explained himself, or explained his songs.” A testament, then, to MacDonald and his crew that what ends up on the screen never feels underdeveloped or lacking in any department.
The project was not his to begin with – Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense) and Martin Scorsese were attached before dropping out, but MacDonald mentions financing falling through 7-8 years ago for a different film project that was to approach Marley in a more round-about way. “[At the time] I'd read about Martin Scorsese doing the film, and I thought 'damn him, I wish I was doing that!'
“One of the first album's I ever bought, when I was twelve years old, was Uprising in 1980. I remember being totally captivated by the music – that album in particular has this almost apocalyptic feeling to it; it's got a scary quality, as though Bob knew he was going to die.” MacDonald admits to taking Marley's music for granted over the years. “You can't go down a street anywhere in the world without hearing Bob Marley at one time or another.” And yet, that also provided a motivating force for him taking on the project: “seeing that Bob had such a huge legacy around the world, particularly in the developing world, and wondering why he had this unique legacy”.
As MacDonald's film probes beyond the myth, the Marley of the film emerges as a far thornier figure than the eternally chill icon that many are familiar with. If anything, Marley's message of peace and love come across more forcefully because it comes from a human being rather than a saint. “He's like everybody, we're all flawed, we all make mistakes with our children. He caused a lot of hurt, he was quite tough and could be violent, so he's not a saint. Making a hagiography is boring, especially if it's a false hagiography. For me, understanding him more deeply as a person, seeing the faults, actually made me feel I understood him more, and made him more heroic to me.”
At two and a half hours in length, with such a wide scope – branching out from music into politics, marital strife, terminal illness – Marley certainly feels like the definitive article, though MacDonald disagrees. “I don't think it's definitive, I think there's no such thing as definitive. I felt he doesn't deserve a 90-minute film, there's such riches here that I owe it to him and his fans and legacy and make something more ambitious and epic... In the details, in the richness of the other characters, the film comes alive and he comes alive.”