Bob Marley remains one of the best-known people on the planet, even 31 years after he left it. But all the namechecks and merchandising have left him seeming like more of an icon than a mere mortal, or even an artist. While the fantastic music he made during his 36 years may be almost universally known, it seems largely ignored in many ways—a victim of beach-bar overexposure and the commercial tedium of endless packages and repackages. Kevin Macdonald's new biodoc Marley (Magnolia DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, and download) can hardly be expected to undo that plastination all by itself, and it doesn't, but it provides a welcome look at the life and work behind the header card and the T-shirt display.
Most fans, even casual ones, will know the basic outline of Robert Nesta Marley's rise. The product of a brief romance between a black woman and a white man, he first began playing music in the Kingston ghetto known as Trench Town. With fellow Trench Town teen Bunny Livingston and the towering Peter Tosh, he would form a fledgling singing trio that was alternately tutored and exploited by various figures in the piratical Jamaican music industry. But as reggae spread across the Caribbean and around the world, Bob Marley and the Wailers became its unrivaled exemplars and ambassadors; Marley's sweet tunes, preternaturally clear-eyed lyrics, and passionate performances made him a sensation among first-world culture tourists and third-world sufferers alike.
Macdonald's footage is polished and vibrant, and he fills in between the usual archival photos and clips with contemporary Jamaican street scenes, all cut to a spectrum of propulsive tunes from Marley's earliest recordings on up to the muscular groove machine of the mature Wailers. While a feature-length doc can hardly be expected to delve deeply into all the corners of such an eventful life, Marley does a creditable job of covering the salient points, from Marley's unwilling role in the violent politics of Jamaica to his complicated home life. (The film features interviews with his widow and onstage companion Rita Marley and a number of his girlfriends, as well as several of the 11 children he had with seven different women.)
Indeed, there are many aspects of Marley's story that would seemingly reward entire films of their own—some enterprising filmmaker should get a crew together and start following Livingston, aka Bunny Wailer, around right now. But perhaps the most tantalizing aspect of Marley is the relative opaqueness of its subject, even at the end of a feature-length exploration. Macdonald sprinkles in a smattering of interview footage with Marley, but the singer sticks to the gnomic wisdom of his songs in lieu of personal oversharing. His intimates talk about him in terms that do little to add nuance to his legend. His children apparently knew him as many fans did, as a figure both formidable and remote. It seems the best window into the man remains his music; if nothing else, Marley should send you right back to that.
Bobby Liebling, on the other hand, shows up onscreen emaciated, wild-eyed and wild-haired, surrounded by filth and junk, his hands swollen and his bony arms riven not with mere track marks, but with raw red fissures wrapped in mummy-like gauze. He is an unabashed flailing, sinking hopeless junkie... who also happens to be the outré frontman for legendary old-school metal band Pentagram. And that's why Don Argott and Demian Fenton train their cameras on him for their new doc Last Days Here (MPI DVD, streaming, and download).
Unlike Marley, Liebling is an obscurity to all but the metal faithful, and as Last Days Here makes clear, most of that is his own fault. He self-sabotaged the band's early shot at fame in the '70s and proceeded to drive away bandmates, well-meaning industry types, and fans over the intervening decades with his degenerate addiction and unreliability. (Liebling is the George Jones of metal no-shows.) When the film opens, he has been reduced to living in his parents' sub-basement in suburban Maryland, by his own admission near death. His abject squalor and human diminishment makes for a serious car-crash viewing experience.
But young metalhead Sean "Pellet" Pelletier hasn't given up on Liebling yet, and as the cameras roll, he tries to coax/inspire/browbeat his hero into rousing himself, getting clean, and getting back onstage. Liebling's relationship with Pellet allows Argott and Fenton to shape a narrative that gives slyly compelling form to the singer's crack-addled agonistes. Even if it's sometimes hard to care what happens to Liebling—especially when the fiftysomething maunders and moans like a lovesick teen over an attractive young metalhead named Hallie who throws him an ill-advised affection bone—you don't want to see Pellet's hopes dashed yet again. Will Bobby get clean? Will he show up? Will all of Pellet's hard work and devotion go to waste? Even if weedy proto-doom isn't your musical flavor, you'll want to see what happens. And almost no matter what you're expecting, you'll be surprised.