Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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With Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Directed by Jo Mendell & Charles Chabot.
(Island Visual Arts, color, 90 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

The Bob Marley Story is worth seeing for the music alone. Every one of the 13 performances honors a singer and songwriter no less fecund and eloquent than Van Morrison or Stevie Wonder and more culturally potent than either; a few of them--"Stir It Up," "Lively Up Yourself," the eternal "Redemption Song"--may well be definitive. Selected from an impressive variety of sources--including vintage black-and-white from Marley's pre-international days, a 1973 BBC shoot, and the historic 1978 One Love concert in Kingston--the concert footage comprises roughly half of the film.

The good half, we're tempted to add, but the rest isn't that bad. This is a perfectly competent documentary, progressing evocatively through Marley's rural boyhood, ghetto adolescence, Jamaican stardom, and international renown. The problem is that Marley's career was so complex and monumental that competence can't do it justice. Except for his mother Cedella, who should be in pictures, and sometime interviewer Gil Noble, who is, none of the participants offers anything in the way of engaging insights. The idea is obviously to gloss over all the contradictions of a man who never shunned them.

Among the missing are Marley's eccentric inheritor Bunny Wailer and all the musicians in the greatest reggae band that ever played. Nowhere is it suggested that his reverentially elucidated Rastafarianism led him to refuse the amputation that might have prevented his death from cancer in 1981. Since Marley's record company financed the project, we learn nothing of his tumultuous business dealings, and since his wife Rita had to be placated, the rest of his love life is also ignored.

None of these messy details diminish the achievement of the first and only pop star to unite people of color in worldwide political awareness. But omitting them leaves us with a sanitized hagiography that's less than he deserves.

Video Review, Aug. 1990