Credit: Chiabella James/Paramount
Blockbuster Beat by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Bob Marley: One Love — Reinaldo Marcus Green

February 14, 2024

It’s difficult to think of a more cynical, creatively stagnant genre than the celebrity musical biopic. Seriously, even the comic book movies will produce the occasional Spider-Verse, but the best of these things is merely coasting on Boomer nostalgia and a soundtrack that conveniently serves as a greatest hits album. Meanwhile, the worst of them diminish the labor involved in creating music and sand down rebellious streaks and unpalatable personality quirks while turning personal demons and chemical dependencies into inspiring, “overcoming adversity” narratives (and that’s before even mentioning how donning prosthetics and credibly lip-syncing has become a weird shorthand for “great acting”). One of the open secrets of the film industry is that because music rights have become so closely guarded and prohibitively expensive to license, there’s almost no way to make one of these films without partnering with either the artist themselves or their estates, which are primarily interested in preserving an unproblematic image of the performer and encouraging renewed interest in their catalogs (is there a less rock and roll expression in the English language than “officially sanctioned”). Put it this way: over the last two years, there have been two films released about the life of Elvis Presley — Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which was produced with the involvement of Elvis Presley Enterprises and presented the King as an uncomplicated musical savant victimized by greedy handlers, and Sofia Coppola’s independently produced Priscilla, which conceives of the character as prickly, controlling, and having a thing for high school girls. Guess which one features Presley’s music?

You will notice that the cumbersomely named Bob Marley: One Love features a lot of Marley’s music. You may also notice that no fewer than four people with the last name Marley receive producer credits on the film (and a fifth, Stephen Marley, is credited as the Music Supervisor). The Marley family no doubt felt it important to honor their patriarch and guide his message of peace and love to movie screens so that it might be received by existing fans and curious younger audiences alike, but in the process they’ve overseen a film so bereft of complications, personal intrigue, tantalizing gossip, or dramatic exaggeration that it at times scarcely resembles an actual movie. In that sense, Bob Marley: One Love almost qualifies as being radical. There is no mid-film addiction to bring its subject low (as everyone who flunked their grade school D.A.R.E. course can attest, cannabis is not a gateway drug). Marley’s well-documented womanizing is reduced to a few hungry glances from across the room and a single dramatic blow-up with wife, Rita, that seems to come out of nowhere. Even Marley’s tragic death from a rare form of skin cancer at the unthinkably young age of 36 is only addressed in a post-film title card. The most conventionally dramatic event of Marley’s life — the politically motivated 1976 assassination attempt that left Bob, Rita, and band manager Don Taylor seriously injured — is burned off in the film’s first 20 minutes. Instead, the film spends the majority of its runtime watching the almost saint-like Marley play soccer, noodle on his guitar, smoke joints, espouse his benevolent Rastafarian ideology, and perform in front of adoring fans around the world. We’ve been conditioned to believe that every rock star’s life is worthy of the cinematic treatment, and Bob Marley: One Love overwhelmingly makes the argument that that’s simply not the case, no matter how great the music might be.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard) and starring Kingsley Ben-Adir (Barbie) as Bob, the film thankfully eschews a cradle-to-the-grave approach and instead focuses on a two-year period from 1976 to 1978, framed by two concerts performed in Kingston: the Smile Jamaica concert held two days after the attempt on Marley’s life, and his triumphant return to his home nation with the One Love Peace Concert which (very briefly) brought together the two contentious political parties of the country into a brief detente. In between those two events, Marley and the Wailers relocated to London to record 1977’s Exodus (which the film triumphantly reminds the viewer was named the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century” by noted finger on the pulse of contemporary music publication, Time Magazine), tours Europe, briefly has his head turned by bougie parties before being put in his place by Rita (Lashana Lynch), and ponders how he can help calm the waters at home, all the while failing to address the gnarly gash on his big toe that ominously refuses to heal. Occasionally, we flash back to Bob’s childhood, where he’s shunned by his white father, or to his teenage years, when Marley was a clean-cut pop artist just breaking into the business. None of these sequences really inform our understanding of the man — nor do the nightmarish visions which find a young Bob escaping a raging inferno while being chased by a man on horseback — but at least they pad the film’s slight runtime out to feature length. Considering Marley never made it to age 37, the film at least has the good sense to not overstay its welcome.

Easily the most bracing decision made by Green is to allow the cast to speak in a heavy patois with no real concessions made to Western audiences comprehending the dialogue (one imagines the close captioned feature will be a popular option once the film is available for home viewing). While this creates a small barrier to understanding exactly what’s being said, it does speak to the film’s more relaxed, insular qualities. One Love encourages the viewer to literally lean in and try and keep up, providing minimal hand-holding in regards to Jamaica’s fraught political situation or overt speechifying, with even Ben-Adir’s attempts at stirring sentiment coming across as tossed off and buried under a heavy accent or peppered with island slang. You kind of get the gist of what’s going on more than complete understanding; it feels like we’re crashing an inner circle, observing a practiced shorthand amongst longtime friends and family members which, actually, is kind of a smart choice. But this is, of course, contrasted with the film’s clumsy attempts to capture Marley’s brilliance as a musician and songwriter, and it’s incapable of stepping over a single pitfall or cliché. We get Marley seemingly coming up with the chorus and melody of “Three Little Birds” on the fly to comfort his young sons after they witnessed a drive-by shooting. We observe Marley conceiving the title track of Exodus mere moments after learning one of his bandmates has purchased an LP of the soundtrack to the Otto Preminger film of the same name. And in a sequence which almost sinks to the level of Mike Myers telling the assembled members of Queen that teenagers are never going to be bobbing their heads in the car to “Bohemian Rhapsody” — still shuddering at that one six years after the fact — we get an oblivious record executive (Michael Gandolfini, doing a nasally white-guy voice) complaining that nobody will buy Bob’s new album if there are no pictures of the band on the cover and that kids will think it’s a religious record. But that’s the paradox of the film: it’s curiously shapeless and light on the incident as though it were attempting to be a tone poem, steeped in faith, capturing an ephemeral vibe that transcends three-act structure. But then it will pivot to Marley spitting out a fully formed rendition of “Redemption Song” (several years before he eventually recorded it, mind you), and when asked when he wrote it, he responds, without an ounce of self-consciousness, “my whole life.” Finally, a film that splits the difference between Terrence Malick and Dewey Cox.

DIRECTOR: Reinaldo Marcus Green;  CAST: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch, James Norton, Tosin Cole;  DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures;  IN THEATERS: February 14;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.