A Lion In Babylon
Marley (Kevin Macdonald, 15)
Beauty (Oliver Hermanus, 18)
A few weeks ago I told a friend of mine I was off to see Marley, a new documentary about the life and work of the reggae star Bob Marley. At this my friend pulled a face expressive of mild distaste, mentioned that he didn’t like Marley’s music, and let me get on my way.
I enjoyed Marley. Mixing interviews with his surviving collaborators with archive footage, the film is a finely detailed account of a man who, despite dying from cancer at the age of just 36, packed a lot into his life.
The film is authorised by Marley’s family and so it ticks off all the expected boxes: Marley’s significance as the first – arguably only – global reggae star, his devout Rastafarianism, his work to bridge violent political tensions in his native Jamaica, and his searing onstage charisma.
But while the film remains very much an official portrait of the singer-songwriter, its director Kevin Macdonald is a canny enough film-maker to avoid airbrushing out the more troubling aspects of Marley’s life.
There are references, for instance, to the singer’s womanising – hard to ignore given the 11 children he fathered with different partners. Macdonald also allows for some disquiet over the direction Marley’s career took once he’d left Jamaica, pointedly including the comment of Marley’s London-based record boss Chris Blackwell in reference to his first album, Catch a Fire: that it was Marley at “his most pasteurised”.
But for all these mildly spiky observations, Marley is a mostly admiring view of the man. A genuine enthusiasm for his work motivates the film, which makes it all the more absorbing. The two hours-plus running time whizzed past.
Still, long after I’d left the screening, I couldn’t help thinking about my friend who didn’t care for Marley’s music. Unable to appreciate the rolling succession of Bob Marley tracks that features on the film, what would he have made of it?
It’s a question worth asking of any musical biopic because with most musicians the work and the life are so inextricably interwoven. Like so many successful rock artists, Marley was talented – but he had ambition and drive to match the talent, and these qualities can make him seem a little remote. That’s certainly the view of his daughter Cedella, who airs slightly frosty recollections of Marley’s absenteeism as a father.
Facing terminal cancer, in a wintry clinic in Bavaria, Marley’s self-belief and confidence
becomes terribly poignant: despite most medical advice, he refuses to give up, promising in a frail voice in a recording to fans he’ll be back on the road soon, only weeks before he died.
But for the most part the film rarely penetrates Marley’s rock-star aura. It’s through his music that he is most vivid – and it’s when focusing on this, through the few archive shots of him at work in the studio, that the film snaps into life, too.
That’s perhaps not enough to make for a compelling experience for my Marley-phobe friend. But he belongs to only a tiny minority of people who don’t like Marley’s music. The credit sequence of the film hop-scotches across the globe for snapshots of Marley’s fans from countless different countries. If you number yourself among these other fans then you’re going to like this film.
And another thing…
South African drama Beauty is a finely crafted, unblinkingly observed depiction of a middle-aged Afrikaans man’s crush on the adult son of his best friend. A powerful portrait of a romantic obsession.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The most magnificent thing about The Magnificent Seven is the majestic score by Elmer Bernstein that the star-studded cast – including Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen – ride their horses around to. A reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the film sees a band of heroic cowboys defend villagers from bandit attacks. Sadly, most don’t make it past the final showdown, but that didn’t prevent three sequels being made. The director was John Sturges.
Out on Blu-ray on May 14