Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Writers: Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin
Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, James Norton, Lashana Lynch
Synopsis: The story of how reggae icon Bob Marley overcame adversity, and the journey behind his revolutionary music.
Biographical films are always slippery. There is sometimes a sweet spot where a director can give a meaningful cinematic version of the subject. There are other times when so many details of someone’s life are alluded to but not discussed to retain the perceived integrity of the people involved. Then there is the biographical picture which just jots down key points and makes a lot of the “facts” up. And then, there is the biographical film where the audience feels like they need Wikipedia just to understand what is going on. Unfortunately, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Bob Marley: One Love is a mix of every category except for the one it should be in – the sweet spot.
Opening with some facts such as Bob Marley was born in 1945 in the Saint Ann Parish in Jamaica, was raised by a single mother, grew up in the hardscrabble area Trenchtown in Kingston. Despite his struggles, by 1976 he was the most famous Jamaican music artist in the world. The film loops back to his early childhood on a plantation with his white British father who left his mother; his teen years where he meets and falls in love with both music, Rastafari, and Alfarita Anderson (later known as Rita Marley), his evolving music career, and the pivotal shooting before the Smile Jamaica concert which made him decide he had to flee Jamaica for the safety of family, friends, and to protect his own life.
Robert Nesta Marley is played by three actors – primarily the regularly excellent Kingsley Ben-Adir. However, there is a mostly wordless child version who leans on his mother’s chest, runs out of a can fire chasing or being chased by a man in British colonial garb. The teen version of Bob has conversations with Alfarita in Trenchtown after his mother has emigrated to the United States. They both feel they are in some ways orphans – they both love to express themselves through music. They become enraptured by the teachings of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I and Jamaican politician, Marcus Garvey.
Beyond the short prelude, the audience is thrust into Bob Marley’s life just before the day of the 56 Hope Road shooting on December 3rd, 1976. Bob gets up early. Runs with his friends and fellow Wailers, plays football with them. Has his kids Ziggy and Stephen with him. Gunshots can be heard all around. Kingston is a controlled city and Jamaica was declared to be in a state of emergency in January 1976 by Prime Minister Michael Manley. Violence is everywhere while two parties are struggling for political control. Bob is interviewed by world journalists about the Smile Jamaica concert, ostensibly organized by Manley’s People’s National Party to help usher in a kind of peace in the region.
Reinaldo Marcus Green and his extended list of screenwriters use the early part of the film up to, and including, the shooting to do a massive information dump. We see Bob as the family man, interacting with his children and his wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch). We see Bob the musician and patois speaking Rastafari inspiration to the people of Jamaica. We see Bob interact with his Wailers and jam with them. And we meet his friend and manager Chris Blackwell (James Norton). They are celebrating during the evening at the large house on Hope Road when a group of young men, more than likely sent by Manley’s opposition Edward Seaga, break in and shoot four people. Included in those four are Rita who was shot in the head, Don Taylor, Louis Griffths, and of course Bob. “Is Seaga men! Dem come fi kill Bob!” someone yells in the chaos.
The most indelible piece of acting Ben-Adir does in the film is when he looks into the eyes of the young shooter. At first, it is almost a warm welcome when he sees the youth, then the realization that the boy has a gun in his hand. That realization registers not as fear but profound disappointment verging on empathy. In that one small exchange, the film has perhaps said everything that needed to be said about the hope for peace which Marley held and his general goodwill to people.
No one is fatally wounded – but the bullets are still bullets, and Rita especially is lucky to have escaped with her life. Two days later, Bob has organized his exit from Jamaica. He is sending Rita and the children to his mother in America, and he will go to London with any of the Wailers prepared to follow him. Two days later he also plays the Smile Jamaica concert beginning his set with ‘War’, his song set to the proclamation of Haile Selassie. After the shooting and the Smile Jamaica concert Bob Marley: One Love just falls into a lot of labored tropes.
Bob is depressed. Bob is disconnected. England is a safer refuge. He goes to see The Clash: which acknowledges the rise of Ska – but also the white nationalist skinheads also around. White coppers are still racist, and he gets put in prison for marijuana. Bob becomes less depressed when making his most famous album “Exodus” (which according to the film was inspired by the “Theme from Exodus” by Ernest Gold written for the 1958 Preminger epic). Bob is cheating on Rita. Bob is the chief who everyone listens to. Bob notices that people around him aren’t acting ethically. Bob flashes back to the shooting, his formative years, his childhood.
“Exodus” becomes a world-wide smash and Bob Marley and the Wailers tour all over Europe being greeted with champagne by Royalty and politicians. Yet he both longs to return to Jamaica and dreads it. He becomes violent with Don Taylor. Rita tells him, “This is not the way,” and yells at him for his flaws which are almost all justified in the film.
There is a prestigious amount of talent in the film. Both Lynch and Ben-Adir are doing their very best with the material they are given, and both make one feel like they understand Marley’s music. The understanding of Marley’s music comes down to the fact that many of the Wailers are played by children of the original members. Almost all of them are musicians. For the concert performance, Stephen Marley takes on Ben-Adir’s vocals. Do a quick rundown of the cast and it includes Micheal Ward, Ben Gandolfini, and Tosin Cole. Anna-Sharé Blake, Naomi Cowan appear as the other I-Threes along with Lynch.
Bob Marley: One Love is very much a family affair – and perhaps that is what hampers the film the most. Few films can do an adequate cradle to the grave portrait of any artist with a career as influential and important as Bob Marley’s. It is also nigh on impossible to explain everything that was going on in Jamaica not only at the time, but right back to its colonized history. If the audience wants to know anything concrete about Marley they are consistently blocked by vagueness and proclamations by other characters about his greatness. Hence when we see that the man on the horse in the pith helmet isn’t his Norval Marley, but Haile Selassie offering the ten-year-old boy his hand in friendship and fatherhood; the gesture which is supposed to be filled with power and mental liberation for Bob, is just confusing.
Bob Marley: One Love is buoyed by the performances when it slows down long enough for the audience to absorb them. Kingsley Ben-Adir does some outstanding work as Marley – inhabiting his accent, his mannerisms, and stage presence. Likewise, Lashana Lynch, herself of Jamaican background is wonderful as Rita when she actually has a chance to act. James Norton is often doing solid but unnoticed work as an actor.
Despite everything Reinaldo Marcus Green does to lend veracity to the film, including shooting on location in Jamaica and the Hope Street mansion, and the addition of reputable musicians, Bob Marley: One Love is overwhelmed by shallow artifice. Those who know little about the icon, peace activist, pan-African symbol, and one of the most important musicians of the twentieth-century will emerge from the film feeling not much wiser. For fans, the film is flimsy and overly metaphorical. Bob Marley: One Love claims to be the apogee of understanding who Bob Marley was in encompassing his complexity – yet it is both rote and confounding. Bob Marley deserves better, as does the audience.