Review: ‘Bob Marley: One Love’

Kingsley Ben-Adir Spreads The Love In Toned Down But Effective Biopic Of The Reggae Legend

The prevailing wisdom is that the more “unauthorized” a Hollywood biopic, the more truthful and real it can be. But does complete honesty always make for a more entertaining movie? Ultimately, that’s going to be the goal of any film, to entertain the people who paid to see it, without compromising the reality of who the subject was. Bob Marley: One Love might be the most “authorized” musical biopic in recent memory. The Marley clan are all over this thing as producers. Ziggy Marley, Bob’s son, introduces the darn thing. And rest assured that his larger-than-life father has the edges rounded out on his incredible but short life of making music that spread the principle of Rastafarianism: peace, love, and unity.

A sanitized view of the events surrounding Bob Marley can’t obscure the fascinating complexities within the man, nor can they hide the soulful performance by Kingsley Ben-Adir as the reggae legend.  This is hardly a life-to-death docudrama. It’s set in 1976 when Bob Marley, played by the esteemed actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, who already played one Black icon, Malcolm X, in One Night in Miami, is at the height of his popularity and influential power. Jamaica is in turmoil; ripped apart by political strife and gang warfare, with each side fighting for control. Marley hopes to put on a peace concert to bring the people together in the idea of one love. But the concert, apolitical in nature, has nevertheless made Marley a target for death. His wife Rita (Lashana Lynch) warns him that he’s not taking the threats seriously enough. Sure enough, before the concert can take place, gunmen attack his home. Marley is shot but will live; Rita is shot in the head and is lucky to survive. Another reason to rock some thick dreads.

The film largely centers on the next two years, as Marley flees Jamaica for London. There he experiences discrimination from the police and the punk rockers, but it’s also where he and his band begin to shape his iconic record, “Exodus”. Mainly, this is the period when Bob Marley begins to transcend music to become the messianic figure he is looked at as today. The film explores the many contradictions that comprise Bob Marley: a man still confused by the absence of his white father who preaches a message of cultural unity. We see him as a family man who protects and cares for his large family, but at the same time he’s less than faithful to Rita who has been by his side literally since childhood. The film only lightly touches on his infidelity and his fathering of kids with other women. He’s also a political firebrand who nevertheless tries to stay out of the fray for fear of division. It’s a tough space to occupy, and while the film tries to present the most glowing version of Bob Marley, the edges still come through and that’s what makes him compelling. Such is the richness of his life that even a Hollywood movie, and a screenplay credited to four different writers, can bury all that he is.

Ben-Adir did tons of research to perfect his portrayal of Bob Marley; the cadence, the way he moves, his spirit. The actor slips easily into the role. You see how he can be both humble and a celebrity pop icon almost in the same breath. We see him at play, enjoying games of soccer with his friends, and moments later he’s in the studio jamming out on guitar, conducting his band to musical heights, and implementing electric guitar to develop a brand new reggae sound. As if possessed by a higher spirit, Ben-Adir dances uncontrollably on stage, lost in the music and the message. At all times, his Bob Marley feels like a figure who is meant for a greater calling.

You don’t need me to tell you that the music is incredible, with One Love having full use of the Marley catalog. That said, you wish the film was expansive enough to show us more of Marley’s rise to greatness, and the fusion of rock, ska, and rocksteady sounds that influenced his style of music. We see some of it in flashback, and there’s a really fun sequence where a young Bob Marley and his early group The Wailing Wailers cram into a sketchy studio and crank out their uprising hit “Simmer Down” to an ecstatic producer.  You want more of the electricity of that moment. Much of One Love feels a bit muted and somber by comparison, as if weighed down by the gravity of Marley’s persona.

Some would say that for the first major Hollywood movie centered on the rise of reggae and Bob Marley, there should be loftier goals than to merely be an entertaining presentation of a revered figure. Maybe that’s so. Undoubtedly there will be a bigger movie somewhere down the line that goes further in depth. Through the Marley sound and the fury of Ben-Adir’s performance, Bob Marley: One Love does what it set out to do; to spread his message of love to an audience who may have never heard it, and to reinforce it within those who have.

Bob Marley: One Love opens in theaters on February 14th.


Bob Marley: One Love
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-bob-marley-one-loveThe prevailing wisdom is that the more "unauthorized" a Hollywood biopic, the more truthful and real it can be. But does complete honesty always make for a more entertaining movie? Ultimately, that's going to be the goal of any film, to entertain the people...