Bob Marley: One Love (2024)

Bob Marley: One Love Review


This biographical film is patchy and praises the Marley that college students put up on their walls the snapshot of a lifestyle hero who’s always the coolest guy in the room.

Bob Marley was inherently unknowable, as most interesting figures tend to be an enigma. Born into poverty in Nine Mile, Jamaica, he had weak singing pipes and a powerful need to be heard. He made himself into the voice of his island and beyond, bellowing reggae anthems that have become hymnals for the world’s downtrodden and anyone else who likes to move around to a good groove. He died in 1981 at age 36 without having to endure too much cross-examination of his legacy. Did Marley’s giving spirit balance out his misogyny? Should we forgive him for being an absentee dad on account of his own lousy childhood? Did his genuine pleas for peace and unity mean anything and is it fair of us to expect that they should?

That last part is necessary, though not necessarily fun. Green does not attempt it in “Bob Marley: One Love,” a patchy, unsatisfying biopic that never moves toward grappling with such questions. The movie salutes those dorm-room-poster ideals of Marley, regarding him as almost holographic; if anything, it takes his image from flat to lenticular. If you never got to see Bob dance, Kingsley Ben-Adir will do nicely.

The problem here lies with Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and Green’s script (Winter shares story credit with Flowers). Admirably steering clear of the usual birth-to-grave structure, which can make even the eventful seem drab when handled unimaginatively (see: “Judas And The Black Messiah”), they choose two years in London during which time pacifist Marley survived electoral violence that also saw gunmen shoot up his house, injuring him and three others. But the movie doesn’t have much to say about his time in exile. Was Marley feeling betrayed by his homeland? Was he homesick? What were the pressures of his international superstardom doing to him? When they all go see the Clash, we can’t even determine whether any fun is being had by Marley or his buddies from the Wailers (who here appear as a doting mob rather than distinct individuals). (Marley was into punk rock, too: “Punks are outcasts from society,” he said. “So are the Rastas.”)

Sometimes, there are random flashbacks. The best ones involve Marley’s relationship with wife/backing singer Rita, played at 16 by Nia Ashi and later depicted as a fully realized adult by an excellent Lashana Lynch; their marriage is rerouted by outside dalliances into what’s depicted onscreen as chaste, tender loyalty. The rest are missed opportunities for getting to know more about this man.

In Roger Steffens’ first-rate biography “So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley,” personal accounts state that Steffens’ mother was uncomfortable having a half-white son and subsequently made him sleep under the house after remarrying; here she’s just a blurry woman cradling young Bob to her bosom.

Instead confoundingly! we get scenes about how he was totally right to insist on a minimalist album cover for “Exodus.” We see the title track come together while Marley improvises lyrics and other Wailers pound bongos and clank spoons against teacups; it’s cute but there’s nothing illuminating here about his songwriting process.

However, Ben-Adir, who played Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami,” gets at Marley. It’s a close-up, the first one we see of him. Flashbulbs assault Marley as a reporter asks, “Do you really believe music can unify?” Eyes downcast, face filling the screen, Ben-Adir barely moves. He is showing us an artist planted by his quiet certainty of purpose; a man propelled by his unwavering sense of self. In his concert scenes and it cannot be overstated how excellent Ben-Adir is during these moments he shuts his eyes just as Marley used to do, bouncing to his own beat with one hand held high like a preacher readying to deliver some good news. The magnetism here is the inverse of Bowie’s or Mercury’s or Jagger’s, who seduced the crowd below them; Marley makes the crowd ache to force a connection with him, to be inside that self-sufficient bliss.

If the movie accomplishes anything it is this: capturing Marley’s lingering spell on fans. The wall-to-wall music alone would make you want to crank him up even louder on the way home. As “Get Up, Stand Up” blares from the speakers Green unspools a montage of what amounts to be Marley’s average day: morning jogs with his mates; afternoons noodling on the guitar; soccer break; joint somewhere in every shot; repeat. It is most teenagers’ dream life ever lived outside their parents’ house. Who wouldn’t revere an adult who pulled it off?

What we don’t see are his failings specifically extramarital relationships and hardly anyone else does either. At least not until it was too late for them all (Cindy Breakspeare) or they were already out (Miss World). They sit in studios unspeaking and unacknowledged and quite literally out of focus. Only through Lynch’s spine-deep performance as Rita do we see the complexity of loving a man who was harder to like the more you knew (or needed) him. Rita is really, truly the only character in this movie who pokes at Marley’s beatific image, forcing him to acknowledge the magical thinking that would ultimately lead to his early death.

After one brutal fight Marley dances behind Rita onstage during “No Woman, No Cry” and puts a hand on her shoulder as if to nudge her forgiveness in front of the audience. The stoicism on Lynch’s face as she sings and obeys her husband’s plea to shed no tears is a staggering mix of irony, cruelty and acceptance. If “One Love” had a dozen more scenes with that power it would be a worthy tribute to both the icon and the man.

Watch Bob Marley: One Love For Free On Gomovies.

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