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Marley, Kevin McDonald’s long, sometimes detailed, but fluid and often engrossing documentary has established several things by the time it ends. Most obviously, it amply demonstrates—if any demonstration was still needed—that its titular reggae icon was one of the very most gifted, original, and riveting popular musicians of the last half-century or so. In his native Jamaica, and eventually in North America, Europe, and Africa, Bob Marley was the object of fervent admiration to millions, not only for his innovative, infectious and often deeply impactive music but also for his liberationist messages.

As reexamined in McDonald’s movie, Marley’s stature and musical gifts make such crasser, more commerce-based mystiques as Michael Jackson’s and Madonna’s wither in significance socially and artistically. Marley also conveys how the seedbed of the singer-composer’s music was the starkly impoverished Kingston, Jamaica slum he experienced as a boy. (One interviewee recalls hearing hungry children told, “Get some water and go to bed.”) And the movie illuminates about as well as this medium can the historical roots of Marley’s art in the brutal racial and political legacies of slavery and colonialism. The Rastafarian faith that guided his life and contributed to his work wasn’t shared by all his fans and admirers, but they felt some of its force in that music and many embraced his poetic, and on occasion emphatic urging of the need for personal and social freedoms. His loyal widow, Rita, whose life with Marley is seen as illustrating the paternalistic limitations of the Rastafarian philosophy, calls his international concert tours “a mission, an evangelistic campaign.”

Marley is no cinematic textbook; it’s by turns alluring, exciting, sobering, and moving. The Jamaican settings are vibrantly depicted, and the ample clips and more extended performance footage communicate the man’s magnetic onstage presence, as well as the genuine loss his devastating early death inflicted on popular music.

Watch the trailer for Marley

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