Marley; PG-13, 144 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

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After years in the making, Marley, the documentary of Rastafarian reggae legend Bob Marley was released on 4/20. (Magnolia Pictures)

At first glance, I gleaned from an e-mail subject line only that it was a movie and that it was called Marley. I drew a breath, made a face. One more treacle bomb from the John Grogan empire of dog-divined sentimental bestsellers?

In other words it didn’t occur to me, at first glance, what a film called Marley might actually be about. I confess this as an amends-making, and to take proper cultural stock of what that name ought to mean to us now. How shameful of me to forget that somewhere between the fettered ghost of Scrooge’s partner and the adorably incorrigible labrador retriever, there was also, um, yes, a certain reggae legend.

Apparently Bob Marley’s life has somehow gone without a definitive motion-picture survey, and this documentary from Kevin Macdonald, who also made Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, will do fine until one arrives. Reportedly Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme both came and went from this project, which had full support from Marley’s estate. Both of those directors have made great movies about musicians before, and either of them might have done something wonderful here. Macdonald’s salvage has a vaguely discernible bronze-medal aspect, but it does Marley’s legacy a great service if only by not taking the form of a trite fictional biopic.

“The third world’s first pop superstar” is what Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner called Marley on the occasion of the latter’s posthumous introduction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Marley elaborates, crawling chronologically through the man’s life history and collecting observations from many who knew him. These vary widely, insight-wise. Son Ziggy and daughter Cedella, two of the 11 children Marley had from seven different relationships, say much, even without words. Wife Rita dignifiedly maintains perspective on the relationships. Fellow musicians improvise their own off-beat chiming in.

To the question of how it went from just The Wailers to Bob Marley and the Wailers, Macdonald mostly implies his answer: How could it not? There is the unfakeable charisma with which, among other feats of populism, Marley once brought a pair of feuding Jamaican politicians on stage with him and got them to hold hands. This may not sound like much, but Jamaican political feuds of that era were ominously violent. In another episode, Marley himself even took a bullet. Then he got back on stage and showed his scar to the worshipful crowd. Yes, he was more driven than the haze of Rastafarian relaxations might suggest.
Compelling even at its most platitudinous, Marley has the full texture of appreciation.

Macdonald does the important thing of getting a groove going. It’s heartening to hear the often gorgeous music returned to its roots and redeemed from the ironic anti-ghetto of Hacky Sack-infested college quadrangles that sprang up after the poverty-born cultural emissary died too young from cancer in 1981. Unfortunately it’ll still take more than just this movie to get past mistaking him, at least at first glance, for some beloved lamented pet.

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