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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Reggae > Rebel Music (Bob Marley)

Rebel Music – The Bob Marley Story


Picture: C     Sound: C-     Extras: D     Main Program: B-



At the end of the 1990s, there were a slew of top one hundred lists, from AFI’s top one hundred films to Rolling Stones’ one hundred most influential musicians.  Like all subjective rankings that make canonical claims, each list sparked silly, but often enjoyable, debates over what constitutes artistic value and cultural influence.  Each list, through its selections, clearly indicated a particular political and artistic bents (just compare the differences between the Village Voice top one hundred films of the last century and the AFI list).  Of all the different lists, the ones that seemed most controversial were the rankings of the most influential artists.  While there are a number of arguments one can deploy to determine influence, it does not seem too much of a stretch to label Bob Marley as the most influential artists of the latter 20th Century, as the New York Times did in 1997 (I am not certain if their pool included the Beatles, but hey, Bob Marley is a defensible pick).  What made Marley such an influential artist is adeptly captured in the documentary, Rebel Music.


Bob Marley, son of a White British father, was abandoned by his father and left in the care of his native Jamaican mother.  Living among the poor and destitute, Marley became quickly disenfranchised with the corruption and impoverishments of his homeland.  His struggles against these hardships served as the inspiration for his music.  Rebel Music follows Marley’s efforts, along with his buddies, the Wailers (including the now independently famous Peter Tosh), to break into the super-competitive, and very crowded, Jamaican music industry to Marley’s accession to worldwide stardom.  The hour and half documentary combines numerous interviews from record producers, various family members (including Rita Marley and his mistress), other members of The Wailers, and then-contemporary political figures.  These discussions are supplemented by archival footage of Bob Marley concerts and interviews with the artist.


The narrative arc of the documentary paints a picture of likeable yet mysterious hero of the people who, like his country, is taken advantage of by various repressive forces.  For example, struggling to get funding to press records and to get regular airplay, the Wailers suffered from embezzling record producers, only to later hit it big overseas.  Likewise, Marley’s popularity was often co-opted by the political leaders of Jamaica who wished to use Marley’s folksy ethos to reach the masses.  At a government-sponsored concert, Marley, in an effort to reunite the country, suffered an assassination attempt.  Such violence was foreign to Marley, whose belief in Haile Selassi as the new messiah and the peaceful teachings of Rastafarian principles lead to musical messages of nonviolence for the poor and disenfranchised to struggle against the forces of oppression.  Although the documentary was largely laudatory, there was recognition of Marley’s improprieties, including his philandering and frequent drug using.  But such acts were often dressed in a sense of dismissive normalcy: “Oh that is just Bob being Bob.”  Yet, the documentary does situate Bob Marley’s story against a larger social backdrop of civil unrest in Jamaica, and how his political (although he did not see himself as political) music captured the cultural landscape.  Like many great artists, Marley was not long for this world; he died of cancer of the toe in 1981 while in his mid thirties.  However, his music continues to be the voice of Jamaica.


The film itself, directed by Jeremy Marr and distributed by Palm Pictures, suffers from the limitations of documentary filmmaking, especially when heavily dependent on archival footage.  The audio (Dolby 2.0) is often tinny which hurts the clarity of Marley’s voice in concert, especially older concert videos.  Likewise, the 1.33 X 1 full frame video is rather unclear at points, although the interviews filmed specifically for the documentary are much better; most of the scratches are from the older film elements.  However, the lack of sharpness does add a bit to the overall aesthetics (I think Marley would have liked the rough edge to it).  There is little in the way of extras, only a discography and some previews.  All told, the documentary is rather educational, almost as much for understanding the political climate in Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s as understanding Bob Marley.  However, unless you specifically a Marley fan, it would make a great rental.



-   Ron Von Burg


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