Marley (15)

One life, one legend, lots of gaps

Kevin Macdonald was said to be a popular choice of director when it came to seeking family co-operation in this apparently definitive portrait of the life and work of Bob Marley. You can understand why. Macdonald, as witnessed in his previous documentaries, such as Touching the Void and One Day in September, is a safe pair of hands, a calm and scrupulous film-maker who won't intrude himself on the narrative in his charge. He's no Nick Broomfield, still less Werner Herzog. The drawback to this cool approach is a tendency for his films to be straight-laced and slightly impersonal: his style never allows for much spontaneity.

With Marley his brief is somewhat cramping, given that he has the man's family to please as well as a global fanbase in awe of the Marley legend. Macdonald goes for a methodical account of the life, from hardscrabble youth in the Trench Town slums of Jamaica to his sadly premature death from cancer in 1981, aged 36, with all points in between. The early years are the most interesting for being the least glossed in recollection: Marley's father, a white British fly-by-night and sometimesoldier named Norval, disappeared promptly, leaving young Robert the tricky legacy of being mixed-race in a mostly black culture. His insider-outsider sensibility was formed right there. Macdonald's doughty digging unearths two of Marley's half-siblings, who barely knew their famous kinsman, but are plainly moved on listening to his song "Cornerstone", about the white Marley's rejection of the son.

In his tracing of the career, Macdonald scores bull's-eyes with two wonderfully vivid interviewees – Bunny Livingston, the last survivor of The Wailers, and Neville Garrick, the group's artistic director. Their affectionate reminiscences more than compensate for the almost total lack of footage from the 1960s, when The Wailers dominated the Jamaican music scene. One nevertheless feels a certain withholding in all the fond retrospection, a sense that this film is no place to air grievances – or even small misgivings – about the great man.

Two omissions will suffice by way of example. Around 1970 Marley got married to Rita: Bunny recalls, wryly, that he and fellow Wailer Peter Tosh, his closest friends, weren't invited to the wedding. Why? The detail is intriguing, and finds a later echo when Marley's daughter Cedella recalls complaining to Dad that kids at school were being unfriendly. "You don't need any friends," he told her, as if imparting a philosophical truth.

That Marley kept people at arm's length, "friends" included, is established but, tantalisingly, not explored. It's possibly to the film-makers' relief that Peter Tosh ("I'm The Toughest") is no longer around to testify, for he seems an equal to Marley in temperament and the most likely character of all to rain on the eulogising parade. (He is heard describing Island Records impresario Chris Blackwell, Marley's friend, as a crook.)

If Marley was not much given to trusting, there is a more than a hint that people couldn't trust him, either, most notably his wife. He was "faithful to Jah", and to no one else. Rita Marley is chucklingly indulgent today of her husband's womanising, and even recalls having to deal in the mornings with the Women Who Wouldn't Leave: not just a complaisant spouse, but a chucker-out! While her dignity in refusing any show of bitterness is admirable ("We couldn't hate him for it"), you wonder how much it cost her at the time to be so understanding.

The contradiction between his public and private faces is something else the film never tries to examine. In later years Marley, a committed Rastafarian, came to be seen almost as a spiritual leader, presiding over an open-all-hours "camp" on Kingston's Hope Road, haloed in ganja smoke. Charity was dispensed on a regular and liberal basis. Yet the film also admits that he was friendly with some of the island's political gangsters and nogoodniks. We shouldn't doubt that a wildly popular and successful star would have to box clever in a violent climate – Marley survived a gunman's attempt on his life – but the film's vagueness on the particulars is suspect. It also doesn't inquire too closely into his relationship with Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, eldest daughter of the then dictator of Gabon, presumably on the grounds that this would not reflect well on Marley's status as messianic superstar and freedom fighter.

Well, we are none of us perfect, and presented with serious temptation who knows how we might behave? The problem with Marley is the reverential distance it keeps. It's not quite a hagiography, but it's close. It isn't just about being economical with the truth. It affects the whole pace of the film which, at nearly two and a half hours, can be heavy going. You long for someone to come out and say, "He could be a real pain in the ass," or "I couldn't stand him," an alternative view which, paradoxically, would make one more inclined to believe all the good stuff about him. Macdonald doesn't dare to stray off-message.

There are surprises, though, for this viewer at least. Having never much cared for his music – "No Woman, No Cry" still sets my teeth on edge – I found myself unexpectedly charmed by the early Wailers sound, when they were still fusing ska and soul, with Marley's sweet tenor floating seductively over the top. And the shots of him in his Adidas tracksuit playing football are oddly affecting: he appears to take the game so very seriously. While he was exiled in London during the late 1970s, the story goes that Marley and his band took on a team of National Front members in Battersea Park – beat them, moreover. It might not rank among his most famous hours, but that's a sight I would have paid to see.