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Watch the Tunes: Marley

On August 26, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Marley, which is streaming over on Netflix.

Being a real deep-cut Bob Marley fan must be tough. Your dude was co-opted as a literal poster boy for private school lacrosse players who think they "get" him because they always have a copy of Legend somewhere in their car, and that’s pretty much his legacy these days however oversimplified that might be. Making the argument against fair weather “greatest hits” fans of any musician sets you up to look like a pretentious turd, but after watching the 2012 documentary Marley this past weekend, I’m much more inclined to believe that Bob is one of the most misunderstood guys to ever grace the walls of literally every dorm room ever.

Maybe I’m being too harsh here, but while I never owned a poster of the man myself, I’m totally guilty of having had a rather myopic view of the reggae legend for way too long, and am just now coming to terms with the fascinating story that was his life and music. Over its two-plus hour runtime, director Kevin Macdonald’s Marley paints a pretty thorough portrait of the Tuff Gong from Trenchtown, with a surprisingly warts and all approach since it was produced by Tuff Gong Pictures, the film-related wing of the label founded by Bob and his group the Wailers. Before we get to the warts though, Marley manages to paint an evocative portrait of life in the slums of Trenchtown Jamaica where Bob grew up in a literal shanty and musically cut his teeth. One of the most unexpected things I learned about Bob Marley was that he was most notably influenced by sugary Brill Building pop like "A Teenager in Love." It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Marley would’ve been in his late teens around the time those songs were making it across the Gulf Of Mexico to Jamaica’s radio shores, but learning that certainly kicked my appreciation of Marley’s music up a notch and I now can’t not hear it in the DNA of just about  every reggae song I’ve listened to since.

Born to a white man, Norval Sinclair Marley, and a black woman, Cedella Booker, Bob’s status as a “half-breed” is presented as the chip on his shoulder that drove him not only to artistic greatness, but also towards Rastafarianism, where he was welcomed in ways unlike any other social group he attempted to join. Like the history of the neighborhood Bob grew up in, Marley explores this religion well enough to establish its role in Bob’s development but doesn’t go much farther than that. We also get a heaping helping of the violent gang-driven politics of Jamaica as a lead in to Bob acting as envoy and bringing rivals Michael Manley (People's National Party) and Edward Seaga (Jamaica Labour Party) on stage at the One Love Peace Concert to shake hands in a monumental act of beef-squashery.

In attempting to present the whole of the man, you do find some of those warts I was talking about earlier, but the uncritical way that they’re all framed in the overall film makes Bob even more real. Yeah, he was an unapologetic womanizer (Bob’s aloof shyness is matched only by his powerfully magnetic charm), but his wife and the handful of ex-girlfriends that are interviewed don’t seem to feel slighted in any way. This might be the tip of an iceberg worthy of deeper inquiry, but here it just seems like that was all part of the game everyone was playing and all involved are more than happy to have had the role they did in his life.

Since he seems to be one of those music legends that is more superficially appreciated than deeply understood by most of his self-described fans, Marley is an excellent and easily digestible cliffs notes into the life, art, and politics of a man who pretty much single handedly put reggae music on the map. There’s so much to love about this movie, from finding out that Lee Scratch Perry is every inch the insane person you expect, to the touching interview with Waltraud Ullrich, Bob’s Bavarian nurse towards the end of his life, and I mean, there’s a shot of Bob just straight up chillin with The Jackson Five in Jamaica that’s worth the price of admission alone. The amount of biographical info, geopolitical context, and  that Kevin Macdonald and crew have crammed into this film is almost unbelievable given how stylish the finished product is. I can’t recommend it highly enough to pretty much anyone with even a passing interest in Bob or reggae in general.


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