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Movie Review: Marley

Rasta stoner who hit it lucky with some God-given talent?

Nope. Bob Marley was a courageous, hard-working and intense (although far from perfect) character, as we learn from the documentary "Marley."

That fierce determination he would exhibit as a young man owed a lot to his struggle as an impoverished, biracial kid in a Jamaican mountain village.

"[He was] worse than teased. Teased is not the word. You'd call it rejected," onetime bandmate Bunny Wailer says of the prejudice Marley faced over the lighter color of his skin. His uncles would make him do the work of a man when he was a small boy just to earn his meal.

Desi Smith, an old friend from his teen years in Kingston, says, "Bob, me, we went to bed hungry ... Real hungry. One of the famous lines was 'Drink some water and go to bed.' ... That kind of [suffering] and struggle can make you either go bad ... or good."

Bob Marley went good, very good, thanks to his early love of music and a natural-born gift that would emerge as a teenager. "Marley," from Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald, tracks his unlikely rise from peasant's son to King of Reggae.

The director refers to it as an oral history, so "Marley" is a talky film, but it offers more variety of Marley footage than you'll see in one place and lots of colorful Jamaican characters and sunny atmosphere.

Marley's early influences may come as a surprise. He was smitten by groups like the Drifters and Temptations, and, as fellow musicians say, he combined that doo-wop harmony style with indigenous mento, calypso and kumina beats. When they put the guitar accent on the offbeat, they came up with reggae.

From his very first single, "Judge Not," recorded in 1962 when he was 16, Marley was concerned with issues like justice and humanity, a quality that would set him apart. He worked his band hard and, as Mr. Wailer describes, the Wailers even played in a graveyard in the middle of the night to overcome whatever fears they might have of performing to an audience. Mr. Macdonald illustrates how Marley adopted the Rastafarian lifestyle, adding purpose and mystique to his music.

His prosperity as a major label artist only strengthened his resolve to help the Jamaican people. Not only were there lines outside his door for handouts of money, "Marley" chronicles a concert that could have cost him his life. It was a major public benefit that became political dynamite in a deeply divided Jamaica. During rehearsals he was shot in the arm in an assassination attempt. When asked if he feared another attempt at the concert, Marley said, "What is to be must be."

Marley on stage, of course, is all electrifying. As a father, he wasn't so much of a superstar. He had a dozen (or so) children with countless women, which weighed on wife Rita, a backup singer in his band. Daughter Cedella and son Ziggy (who is a co-producer) say he wasn't around much, and when he was, he was tough, even competitive with his kids.

They were all pretty young when the film takes its tragic course -- to Pittsburgh for his final show (depicted in photos and audio), and then to Germany for a fleeting effort to cure his cancer. The good side to Marley's conquests is that he passed the musical gene down to Ziggy, Stephen, Julian, Damian and others, who carry on the family tradition.

But as with John Lennon, you watch "Marley" contemplating how much more greatness the world could have gotten from Bob Marley, above and beyond the musical level.

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