For 15 minutes or so, Bob Marley: One Love promises to be an antidote to the usual cookie-cutter music biopic, the kind skewered by the 2007 spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Riffing back then on 2005’s Walk the Line, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as troubled country star Johnny Cash, Jake Kasdan’s film took aim at the whole jukebox-movie industry, featuring a solemn lead character who “has to think about his entire life before he goes on stage.”
Spoiler alert: this kind of thing also happens in One Love. But Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film promises so much more, things like real-world politics, emotional complexity, and serious danger. In other words, an alternative to the usual narrative of the greenhorn who dreams big, lives that dream, and then gets sucker-punched by The Man. Gradually, though, the realization dawns that we’re being sold a pup. As Led Zeppelin might say, the song remains the same.
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Admittedly, it’s a poisoned chalice to make a movie like this: you either get the music rights or you don’t. Sometimes, losing out can be liberating, as it was with the misunderstood Jimi Hendrix movie All Is by My Side, which, with its absence of all the classics, forced viewers to focus on the UK pitstop that transformed the guitar legend from session musician to ’60s superstar. But, by the same token, if the artist plays ball, you could easily end up with Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that seriously asks you to believe that Freddie Mercury hadn’t heard about Live Aid because some gay men came round for a party and turned the television off.
Bob Marley: One Love — produced by Ziggy, Rita and Cedella Marley — hovers between the two extremes, starting with a genuinely electrifying opening. It’s 1976, and Kingston is a warzone, riven by checkpoints and festooned in barbed wire. Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is preparing for the Smile Jamaica concert, an attempt to bridge the gap between the ruling People’s National Party and the opposing Jamaica Labor Party. The previously apolitical artist is deemed to have crossed a line, by both factions, leading to bloodshed when some would-be assassins attack him and his wife Rita (Lashana Lynch) at their home. Both miraculously survive — and Marley even performs — but after the concert takes place, Marley goes into exile in the UK while Rita takes their kids to the U.S.
The portrayal of Marley’s time in the UK is well-intentioned but rather misses the point of how London energized him. By then, the punk scene was getting into its stride, but few bands had released records, so reggae was ubiquitous at underground clubs. We see Marley checking out The Clash at a gig, where they play the provocative “White Riot.” He comments on the similarities between Kingston and London, but we don’t see, or feel, how he jelled with the outsider vibe of the times — that summer, he released “Punky Reggae Party,” name-checking The Damned, The Clash and, weirdly, R&B band Dr. Feelgood.
This is also where the film starts to lose steam, as Marley gets down to the recording of Exodus, maybe his best-known album. Fair play: we see the realities of that — Marley’s first demand is “a good engineer” — but this is also where the music-movie clichés start to creep in. There’s the jam session that becomes a familiar song; the freestyling of lyrics that become another familiar song (“Natural Mystic” seems to go on for quite a while); and the trying out of tunes that become yet more familiar songs, mostly for Rita, who flies in to sing on the album as part of her trio I Three, and, briefly, massage his ego. Less excitingly, we see an argument about the cover and its now-famous crumbly typeface.
As to the path it takes next, Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie The Doors seems as though it might have been an influence here — which is not a criticism. Green gets the fact that Marley was, first and foremost, a shamanic live performer, and the concert scenes are as intense as anything Stone captured. Ben-Adir, somewhat confined in a largely reactive role for the rest of the movie, really rises to the challenge here, and his work is up there with the best inhabitations of an all-in performer (think Val Kilmer as Doors frontman Jim Morrison, Sam Riley in Control, or Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It?).
Meanwhile, the music industry — one of two Babylons in the film, the other being politics — is represented by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, played by the excellent James Norton. So many bets are being hedged here that it’s hard to know how we’re meant to gauge him as a character (mentor or manipulator?), and it would be nice if there was a bit more acknowledgment of his earlier involvement in Marley’s rise. The same goes for his former bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, both all but airbrushed from the story.
Likewise, it would have been great to hear some other music from the period. Several references to Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey’s apocalyptic prediction that there would be a day of reckoning “when the two sevens clash” (on 7 July 1977) might lead even the most rudimentary reggae connoisseurs to expect the song “Two Sevens Clash” by Jamaican band Culture. But no. Kingston was on fire at the time, with artists like King Tubby, Delroy Wilson, Lee “Scratch” Perry, I-Roy, U-Roy and Tapper Zukie, and they’re not here either.
That said, there is only so much you can do with the off-stage stuff, and the dramatic potential in the rise — that people-person Marley might have his head turned by money and fame — goes the way you might expect. In The Doors, Morrison is warned off Andy Warhol’s druggy Factory crowd by keyboardist Ray Manzarek (“Come on, Jim, this isn’t our scene. These people are vampires!”) In One Love, Rita gives Marley the same wake-up call after a swanky party in Paris, attended by the Jaggers and sundry glitterati from the upper echelons. “Who really cares about you?” she rages. “You swim in pollution, you get polluted.”
This spiky confrontation, again, promises more than it delivers, because, despite Lynch’s very best efforts, Rita never really seems to come off the page. “I’m a wife and a soldier,” she says, yet we never really see the evidence of that passion, that fight — and it’s what the story is crying out for, rather the homilies that we end up getting more of as Marley gets deeper into Rastafarianism.
Pretty soon we’re into the decline; the still-unbelievable chain of events that led from a seemingly unremarkable football injury to Marley’s death on 11 May 1981, aged just 36. But the film’s structure works against that too, and its eccentric use of flashbacks will surely send many viewers to Wikipedia afterwards for a refresher course on the actual timeline of those very busy final years.
Indeed, after Marley’s appearance at the historic One Love Peace Concert in 1978, and before the credits, One Love ends with a barrage of explanatory intertitles. One sticks out, informing us that Time magazine voted “Exodus” the best album of the 20th century. From what we’ve seen, it’s clear that Marley would never have cared about this, and neither will the film’s target audience, so why include it?
The problem with One Love is that, just like the music industry, its makers still don’t quite know how to deal with Bob Marley, a genuine original, a true rebel poet, a Che Guevara on the downbeat. But his music still sounds amazing and his almost mythical stature has not diminished a jot in the last half century. One Love may not catch a fire, but if it keeps the flame alive, well, maybe that’ll be enough.
Title: Bob Marley: One Love
Release date: February 14, 2023
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenwriters: Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch, James Norton
Running time: 1 hr 44 min