Much like many music biopics, writing a review of Bob Marley: One Love means taking a lot of what I’ve already written in the past about various superstars like Queen, Elvis, and NWA, and essentially plugging in what makes sense for the famed reggae singer. Sure, that’s not my actual approach to putting together thoughts on what’s been assembled by director Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard) as a tribute to the Rastafarian icon, but it does lead me to my main question. When we have these sorts of films tackling stars by way of crowd-pleasing celebration and positive messaging while avoiding further complexity, is that enough to justify the effort?
While not exactly a cradle-to-the-grave approach to the man, the period of time Bob Marley: One Love focuses on is curious. Starting in 1976, Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) has already found international fame. He’s about to perform a concert with the intent of uniting the two political parties in Jamaica (never explicitly detailed) that are clashing. Over the course of this film, we witness this and other concerts, an assassination attempt, Marley’s time spent in London recording “Exodus,” and his eventual cancer diagnosis. It’s all history, well-known history at that, so revealing these aspects isn’t too much of a concern compared to the lack of a stronger narrative flow.
However, I could concede that this film is perhaps trying to angle more toward Marley and his general state of mind. As complex a figure as he was, given his clear musical ability and political views (not to mention soccer/football talent, and eventual religious views not covered in this film), there’s an easy-going rhythm to what’s being presented. Even as things get heavier, be it corruption, the shots fired at him, or spats with his wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch), the film’s mood rarely ramps up to any higher extremes. Given the choice not to reconfigure history to fit an eventual plot structure, perhaps Bob Marley: One Love is set on being a character picture with musical breaks.
If that’s the case, I can give credit to what Ben-Adir is aiming for. While he’s lip-syncing the songs and his stage presence (much like Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up or Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody) can’t really equal what the real deal really delivered, the time we spend with Marely offstage is quite effective. Perhaps a bit too many moments of Marley staring off into the distance to signal another flashback to his younger self (Quan-Dajai, delivering, perhaps, the film’s best performance) beginning his career with The Wailers and forming his relationship with Rita, but the actor certainly feels well-placed.
Similarly, while the rest of the band plays largely as interchangeable figures, Lynch provides as much solid work as she can in her limited role as Rita. While her presence in the film is usually dictated by events that need to play out for story purposes, it at least feels like a human inhabits this character, and she has warm chemistry with Ben-Adir. Of course, in that description lies an element of the film that is hard to criticize but certainly feels apparent.
Working closely with the Marley family and understanding that the singer, compared to others, didn’t seem to have some darker side that needed to be delved into means there’s not much in the way of natural dramatic beats to rely on for cinematic purposes. As a result, the film basically rests on moments that are not unusual to dig into Marley’s family life. Because it feels honest, his lack of a stronger disposition means introspection plays a more prominent role than theatrics. As a result, while never dull, we are watching a relatively passive character, which is not always inherently exciting.
“But what about the music and the messaging?” One may ask. Well, it’s there. The film plays a sort of trick in that it makes you believe you’re getting a good amount of Marley’s songs when they’re really just decent-sized clips during concerts or recording montages. Given how short this film is (a little over 90 minutes, minus credits), that also makes Bob Marley: One Love feel more rooted in its rhythms than it may be. Is there much purpose to how the music is utilized? Yes, but it’s never subtle. While certain hits are excluded entirely, others don’t beat around the bush. Marley and Rita have a fight, and the next scene features “No Woman, No Cry.” When the revolutionary has everyone paying attention, it’s time for “Get Up, Stand Up.”
Honestly, however, I have no real issue with this. If I’m seeing a Bob Marley movie and have the opportunity to hear a lot of his fantastic music, I’m all for hearing it loud and, ideally, having it presented creatively. Shot by Robert Elswit, there’s enough location shooting in Jamaica, among other places, to show me the effort that went into providing some level of authenticity. Even a couple of recurring motifs were able to help keep the film thematically consistent.
Of course, this brings me back to what this film ultimately accomplishes. I have a hard time saying it’s doing anything more than serving as a reminder of who Bob Marley was without really digging into what he stood for, the true power of his music, or what he was really after beyond a broad sense of peace and unity. If one wants a much stronger understanding of the Bob Marley who looked up to various Black activists and the struggles of obtaining freedom, the 2012 documentary Marley is a terrific film that balances the icon’s ideas with his musical prowess and that impact. For those just in need of a slight but mostly joyful display, Bob Marley: One Love is okay, but it’s no Legend.
[Note: This film features heavy Jamaican accents without studio-mandated subtitles, which feels like a win for those content enough with jamming to this film.]