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‘Bob Marley: One Love’ review: Biopic is afraid to stir it up

Reinaldo Marcus Green's overly respectful film is set in times of conflict but still can't catch fire

Kingsley Ben-Adir in 'Bob Marley: One Love'
Kingsley Ben-Adir in 'Bob Marley: One Love'

I wonder if Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of Bob Marley: One Love, knows his film has a perpetual sticker in the lower right corner of the screen in Indian theatres. This is a film about Rastafari, so someone’s always smoking ganja. And if someone’s smoking in a film that plays in India, there will be a statutory warning plastered on screen. Baffling censor interventions, terrible audiences, prohibitive pricing: India becomes a worse place to watch movies with each passing year. 

Green was probably hired off the back of his Venus and Serena Williams film, King Richard, which showed he could handle a big-ticket biopic. Yet, there were warning signs in that 2021 film that Green wasn’t ready—or able—to push the Hollywood biopic out of its comfort zone. We see this in One Love, which lacks even the surface-level toughness of King Richard. The Bob Marley we’re introduced to at the start is already a legend—the only suspense is whether he’ll ascend to the level of messiah. 

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By the mid-70s, Marley is the king of reggae music and a mass hero in a country weighed down by poverty and violence. With the island gearing up for a divisive election, he announces a peace concert, but is sent reeling after gunmen try to kill him. Marley decamps to England with his entourage, where he plays football, basks in his celebrity, and searches for inspiration for a record that he hopes will change the face of music. 

We see the album take shape. Marley hears a bandmate playing the main theme to the Paul Newman film Exodus. The word, with its Biblical implications, strikes something in him, and he gathers the band. He starts singing. The percussionist taps on a conga, the guitarist lays down some bluesy licks. Lines arrive fully formed. Soon they have the first draft of a classic, and a title for the record: Exodus. It’s a wonderful scene—one of the few where Marley’s music is allowed to exist separate from his legend. 

There are musical connections to be made, but the film doesn’t seem interested. In one scene, Marley and his band watch, half-bemused, half-impressed, as The Clash belt out ‘White Riot’. Might their version of ‘Police and Thieves’, a cover of a Jamaican hit, have been a more thoughtful choice, pointing to the deep influence of reggae on the British music scene then? The film opts for the most boring spiritual crisis—a mild corruption of Marley’s soul, aided by music biz insiders, eventually nipped in the bud by his exasperated wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch). Every time Marley struggles or despairs, Green trots out the same uninspired dream sequence: Bob as a child in front of a burning field, a man on a horse looming nearby.

Kingsley Ben-Adir is a sweet, passive Marley. The British actor, who played Malcolm X in One Night in Miami and Barack Obama in The Comedy Rule, manages the thick, musical patois admirably (his grandparents were from Trinidad & Tobago; Lynch, also British, is of Jamaican descent). But I found his performance lacking motive force, whereas Lynch takes her scenes by the scruff of the neck. There’s one moment when he explodes into violence, and it seems forced because it’s at odds with everything we’ve seen before.

The film is shot by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), co-written by Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and produced by Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment. All the right people, but the vibes are off. Every now and then, a woman’s voice hums meaningfully on the soundtrack, a painfully Hollywood choice. I was reminded of the last famous-person biopic I liked, Ridley Scott's Napoleon, which broke free of the tyranny of accents by not doing them at all. That film had interest in its subject but little reverence. It’s the other way around with One Love, which could stand to be less respectful, and less afraid to stir it up.  

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