Bob Marley packed a lot of living into his 36 years. Hit records, international concert success, 11 kids by seven women, a face on more T-shirts than Che Guevara's — it was as if he knew he didn't have much time so he got an early start and lived at a sprint, despite the laid-back image his music and lifestyle portrayed.
He's been dead for three decades, but one of the founding fathers of reggae music remains an icon whose fame transcended music.
The who, where and how of Bob Marley shine through in Kevin Macdonald's thorough (almost overly so) documentary about this Jamaican who introduced reggae and his religion, Rastafarianism, to the globe — a guy for whom the phrase "world music" was pretty much invented.
Macdonald, director of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, used his clout to round up everyone from Marley's first teacher to his producers, colleagues, wife, lovers and children, to paint the most complete portrait of this seminal musician.
Here's Bunny Livingston of The Wailers dancing out the chucka-chucka beat of reggae, where you play "three beats and imagine the fourth." Bunny also tells how The Wailers were formed and found their name: "We came from a wailing environment, everybody always bawling."
And there, in interviews and onstage, bouncing around the microphone in near religious ecstasy, is Marley, putting poetry into dance music that took over Jamaica's dance halls and then conquered the world.
Rastafari, with its ganja-smoking, dreadlocks-wearing, Haile Selassie-worshipping mysteriousness, is explained. This is some of the most fascinating footage of Marley, learning how Bob, an "out caste" thanks to the white father he never knew, found a father figure in the charismatic Mortimer Planno, a preacher of the "liberationist" Jamaican religion that re-imaged Christianity through Afro-centric eyes.
The red-letter dates in Marley's career, from his first single (Judge Not) in 1962 (he was 16) to the "tipping point" concert that made him an international phenomenon, to his hard-won breakthrough in America, are captured.
Friends and colleagues remember the political naivete, the assassination attempt, the mania for soccer that injured him and set in motion the disease that killed him. We hear, from a daughter and son, what a feckless husband and absentee dad he was.
One big omission is Marley explaining his creative process. There are many interviews, but reporters of the day were caught up in his hair, his history, his religion and his marijuana use and never nailed down much about where the poetry came from.
Still, Marley manages to be something close to a definitive history lesson about a man whose music has endured even as the genre has evolved in the decades after his death. And every now and then, the movie comes close to placing us where the music often did — in the realm of the mystical, with a beat everybody could dance to.