It’s like Bob Marley never left this earth. Credit his infectious music for keeping his legacy alive.
When you hear a Marley song, you get a fresh feeling. Like you’re listening to it for the first time, even though you’re not. Forty-three years after the reggae king’s death, his essence, love, wisdom and social concerns are alive and well in his verses, choruses, lyrics and melodies. The power of Marley’s music will lift viewers spirits for 1h 44m, as his story unfolds.
The script by Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers and Zach Baylin isn’t a cradle-to-grave recollection. Instead, it largely features snippets of his childhood, some adolescent years with most of the focus on his adulthood. This cliff notes version will satisfy the casual Marley fan. Those wanting a deeper dive should view the informative 2h 44min doc Marley, which was released in 2012 or read the detailed 464-page biography So Much Things to Say – The Oral History of Bob Marley, published in 2017.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard) brings Marley back to life like a griot telling a story to his village. The peaks, valleys, family, friends and music industry associates are depicted in a professional manner. This isn’t an art film, though that might have been the approach of a director like Steve McQueen (Lovers Rock). It’s a traditional music bio/film, with some flashbacks. Just enough to fill in Marley’s background and give audiences a way to understand his mental and emotional state.
As a teen Bob Marley (Quan-Dajai Henriques), born and raised in the town of Nine Mile, in the parish of St. Ann, Jamaica, meets his sweetheart Rita (Nia Ashi). They’re kindred souls. Fellow outcasts. She’s maligned for being dark skinned: “They called me Blackie too-too.” His light-skinned features draw derision too: “They called me Yellow boy.” A bond holds them tight as the grown-up Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir, One Night in Miami) and his crew The Wailers become famous reggae musicians worldwide and Rita (Lashana Lynch, The Woman King) leads their backup singers.
The drama on view isn’t the deepest, even as it shows an attempted assassination (December 3, 1976), pressure from the divisive government and threats levied by the island’s gang leaders. The PG-13 rating means that the violence, romance and adult situations won’t be graphic. Good news for wider audiences. Maybe disappointing for adults looking for stark realism.
Through the ups and downs, one element prevails, and it’s Marley’s music. An effect so strong it feels like it’s in every frame, even when it isn’t. A new generation will hear the love songs: “Could You be Loved,” “No Woman No Cry,” and “Is this Love.” The defiant, socially conscious ones: “Get up Stand up” and “Exodus.” And the very circumspect “Redemption Song.” This grace and power shouldn’t be underestimated.
Embodying Marley’s larger-than-life spirit is no small task. First, Ben-Adir doesn’t look like the legend. Second, he can’t sing like him either, which is likely why he’s often lip-syncing. But by the end of the film, he’s created an illusion so strong you’re convinced that the world-famous reggae singer is in the house. Lynch plays Rita as the strong woman who’ll correct her man when he’s off the rails. Especially when his superstar career and expectations from politicians, fans and citizens of his homeland overwhelm him. One night in London at a swank party, they head outside to an alley to clear the air. After screaming, yelling and a face being slapped, they have words.
Rita: “I always liked your songs. Don’t let what they did to us take away that side of you.” Later in a very sad part of the film, closer to Marley’s death in 1981, she lovingly restates her purpose in their relationship: “All I ever wanted to do was carry half the weight.” From the crescendos to the decrescendos, Ben-Adis and Lynch find ways to keep the audience glued to the couple’s enduring love.
Marley’s outward feelings are different from the insecurities and trauma he holds inside. A haunting, evocative image of him as a kid running away from a burning field is a recurring nightmare. It’s an eerie visual (cinematographer Robert Elswit, There Will be Blood; set designer Chris Lowe). As Marley accepts the Rastafarian way of life and its serenity, that metamorphosis is reflected in those visions. It’s a nice touch.
Green films mega concert scenes well. Intimate moments in studios, when Marley, Peter Tosh (Alexx A-Game) and other musicians work out songs and melodies for his legendary Exodus album, are captivating too. Shots of Marley driving his BMW Bavarian car down dirt roads, with family and friends aboard, capture the unfettered country life in Jamaica.
With Rita and Ziggy Marley as producers, this condensed version of a musician who lived a storied, complicated life, is about as authentic and detailed as it can be. Only a mini-series or five-hour film could include everything. Don’t be surprised if those more encompassing formats are produced and released someday in the future.
Bob Marley: One Love is a worthy addition to the features, docs, series and books that will continue to explore facets of the reggae superstar’s existence. This may not be the ultimate Marley narrative, but this project respectfully keeps his memory and mission alive.
Come for the film, walk away humming the music.