Of all the martyr figures in 20th-century pop music, death did Bob Marley the greatest disservice. Succumbing to cancer in 1981, the reggae icon exited the planet a Third World demigod, but posthumous deification has a way of undermining the life an artist actually lived. In Marley’s case, it flattened his whole existence into a poster tacked to a dorm-room wall. Three decades after his passing, the prevailing image of Jamaica’s favorite son is not of a brilliant, culturally transcendent songwriter. Thanks to the ganja-puffing frat boys and trust-fund hippies who co-opted his iconography, when most people think of Bob Marley these days, it’s as the patron saint of collegiate potheads. 

Clocking in at nearly 2 1/2 hours, Kevin Macdonald's Marley is a hefty rebuke against such marginalization—cheeky April 20 release date notwithstanding. It is by no means the first thorough examination of Marley's life, and other than snippets of rare recordings and a few candid home videos, hardcore fans won't find much more here than in any of the numerous other books and films about him. As a one-stop doc for the fledgling reggae fiend, however, Macdonald has made a precious resource. He presents Marley's biography linearly—from cradle to grave, with a brief stopover in Delaware…yes, Delaware—and without much cinematic flash. The movie doesn't need it, not with talking heads as entertaining as former Wailer Bunny Livingston and legendary freakazoid Lee "Scratch" Perry, and the archival live footage is electrifying enough to power the film on its own. Is it overlong? Certainly, there are moments that could've been cut. But considering how Marley's journey from impoverished mixed-race outcast to global superstar encompasses the entire modern political and musical history of his home country, it might not be long enough.

In terms of illuminating the closely guarded person behind the exalted myth, that's where Marley falls short. It's not for a lack of trying: Macdonald interviewed seemingly everyone who could conceivably be called part of Marley's inner circle, and he doesn't shy away from the contradictions of the singer's public persona (hyper-spiritual philanderer, humble servant of Jah possessed of such a large ego he'd gloat about beating his young kids in a foot race). Even after two-plus hours, Marley emerges as a man as unknowable in life as he is 30 years after his death, but maybe that's as accurate a portrait as anyone can hope to paint. PG-13.

Critic’s Score: 75

SEE IT: Marley opens Friday at Hollywood Theatre.