‘Bob Marley: One Love’ review: A bog-standard biopic that avoids complications
9 mins read

‘Bob Marley: One Love’ review: A bog-standard biopic that avoids complications


Bob Marley: One Love is a fascinating example of the many ways Hollywood biopics (especially music biopics) tend to go wrong. Despite its handful of aesthetic strengths, the film from Joe Bell and King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green rounds out an informal trilogy of banal biographical movies that have little to offer beyond the broad strokes of rote sentiment.

And yet, Bob Marley: One Love occasionally transcends these trappings, sometimes for better, but mostly for worse. It has more emotional highs than you’d expect from a conveyor-belt studio film that treats a famous discography like comic book IP, but it also functions as a flattening and historical whitewashing of its central subject. Despite hinting at political unrest in its backdrop, the film defangs a distinctly political figure, reducing him to a “coexist” bumper sticker.

There’s much to be praised in Green’s film, but even highlighting its strengths feels dirty. Everything that works about One Love ends up in service of the decades-long commodification of Bob Marley, a pop culture symbol now easily decoupled from real struggle or political outlook — like an out-of-context Martin Luther King Jr. quote deployed to criticize protests, or a designer Che Guevara T-shirt. You could walk into the film knowing absolutely nothing about Marley (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir), and chances are, you’ll leave it none the wiser.

What is Bob Marley: One Love about?

Lashana Lynch and Kingsley Ben-Adir in "Bob Marley: One Love."


Credit: Chiabella James / Paramount Picture

At bare minimum, One Love has a novel structure, eschewing the traditional birth-to-death Hollywood biopic in favor of flashbacks motivated by a sense of yearning and spiritual memory. The movie conveys its factoids about Marley’s childhood, upbringing, and initial success as scenes of the past nestled within a tale that begins in 1976, during a volatile period for Jamaica when Marley himself became the target of an assassination attempt.

However, despite its handful of initial scenes that touch on this event, the film is not about a man’s brush with death and how this influences his life. For the most part, it follows his subsequent move to London in search of a new sound. Marley (“Skipper” to his bandmates and his entourage) has the disposition of a leader, and Ben-Adir imbues him with a sense of thoughtfulness and poise. Though the movie gestures towards Jamaican politics and complications in Marley’s personal life, it renders even the finest parts of its central performance moot. Ben-Adir is completely dialed into Marley’s spiritual musings, floating on air when he performs, and speaking with the cadence of a prophet. However, the camera never interrogates his relationship to the real struggles unfolding in the background and just off-screen, even in silent, isolated moments. His aura feels disconnected and inhuman in the process.

It is, at best, a film of bare minimums. At least Ben-Adir is alluring; at least Lashana Lynch, who plays Marley’s long-suffering wife Rita, performs with captivating passion. At least its seams don’t show too overtly, in the vein of something like Bohemian Rhapsody. But a figure with Marley’s stature deserves far better than “just enough.”

As it happens, hints of a better movie do actually emerge during some of the flashbacks, in which Marley and Rita are played as teenagers by Quan-Dajai Henriques and Nia Ashi respectively. These scenes, while brief, are rife with warmth, passion, and desire; the way Marley is captured in these moments makes him feel ambitious, like he wants something vast — perhaps to change the world, or to change himself. Unfortunately, the film’s “present” seldom fulfills this promise. Instead, it simply follows a man getting back in the booth, as most other concerns fade away.

The reductive politics of Bob Marley: One Love

Kingsley Ben-Adir as “Bob Marley”, Anna-Sharé Blake as “Judy Mowatt”, Lashana Lynch as “Rita Marley”, and Naomi Cowan as “Marcia Griffiths” in Bob Marley: One Love from Paramount Pictures.


Credit: Chiabella James / Paramount Picture

Few biopics have been this densely packed with information in their opening and closing text cards, establishing time, place, and socio-political zeitgeist in ways the movie’s images do not. However, this written exposition serves an intriguing secondary function by being written entirely in the present tense, despite referring to the late ’70s. There is, in the process, a sense of present-ness to One Love that’s fascinating to unpack — a melding of past and future, intentional or otherwise — that attempts to connect us to Marley through time, though it doesn’t always work. The movie’s flashbacks enter the edit without overt flourishes, as though they were simply scenes unfolding in the “now.” Bob Marley is eternal, after all, but what he represents here is equally disconnected from time.

As violence between major political factions erupts, Marley’s presence and preaching become little more than a thoughtless facsimile, as though the movie’s many writers — Green, along with Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, and Zach Baylin — had reverse-engineered him from a couple of lyrics on a dorm room poster. He speaks of the activist Marcus Garvey and makes numerous references to Rastafari, but when it comes to his music, these end up little more than catchy slogans upon which to meditate, rather than political ideologies against which to mold his music.

In reality, Marley never committed himself to a political label, but his work was always radically pan-African and anti-poverty. In the film, these outlooks only warrant passing mentions, and any footage or images of revolution or real violence are relegated to grainy news clippings and archival footage. They exist somewhere in a nebulous past, despite the film unfolding in its own distinct “present,” as though these concerns were entirely separate from what was unfolding on screen.

The filmmaking is occasionally interesting, but mostly falls flat.

Kingsley Ben-Adir as “Bob Marley” and Director Reinaldo Marcus Green in Bob Marley: One Love from Paramount Pictures.

Kingsley Ben-Adir and Reinaldo Marcus Green on the set of “Bob Marley: One Love.”
Credit: Chiabella James / Paramount Picture

The film does eventually overcome its dull introductory scenes by making Marley’s music shine. The deft sound mix makes it play less like a jukebox musical and more like an intimate live performance (whether in rehearsal or in front of a crowd). It is, for this reason, a theatrical experience first and foremost.

It also delves occasionally into surreal territory, with repeated motifs like Marley escaping a field of fire in his childhood, and his estranged, faceless white father dressed like a British colonial hunter — a personal and political specter he spends years trying to both confront and overcome. However, these symbols rarely evolve or take on new emotional forms, leaving Ben-Adir to do most of the heavy lifting in these scenes.

Shouldered with capturing both a person and cultural icon, Ben-Adir is utterly committed in a way that deserves hypnotic filmmaking, but is instead met with a camera that feels noncommittal and unobtrusive. The actor channels Marley’s spirit on stage, and captures a sense of historic heroism in his stature and gait. His performance makes for a fascinating B-side to his work as Malcolm X in One Night in Miami, which saw him imbue familiar gestures, postures, and eccentricities — so easily parodied and reproduced — with a beating human heart. In One Love, he similarly finds ways to take the Marley we know, from interviews, photographs, and stage performances, and blend him with a more private Marley, making known the unknown and tracing his evolution from person to icon. However, the camera rarely keeps up with his multifaceted approach, reducing Marley to a fixed point in time and rendering the symbols surrounding him distinctly literal. 

Worst of all, there are few moments in the film that match Marley’s own energy as a performer. Ben-Adir gets adequately swept up in the music, but the camera mostly observes him, rather than embodying him. The directing is whatever the opposite of “revolutionary” is, resulting in a movie that feels distinctly un-radical in its depiction of a revered icon who not only revolutionized music but raised political consciousness.

The film never sinks to the level of unwatchable, but it’s actually something worse than boring. It’s a moral and intellectual void, swallowing whole any semblance of creativity or radical thought, as though it were an act of pacification. It’s the exact opposite of everything Bob Marley was, and what he stood for.

Bob Marley: One Love opens in theaters Feb. 14.





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