During a 1979 interview with Bob Marley, New Zealand journalist Dylan Taite asked the musician about his early exposure to different genres. Taite wanted to know if Marley had dabbled in rock or soul before settling on reggae. Marley rubbed his chin and fixed his gaze off camera as he considered the question. “I wasn’t really into dem tings,” he said, “I was really into spiritual music, you know, cause it get more revolutionized.” For Marley, music was a transcendent experience with political potential.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Bob Marley: One Love tends unevenly to this idea. The film builds a portrait of Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) around the creation of the Jamaican star and his band’s ninth studio album. Exodus was released in 1977 — two years before Bob Marley and the Wailers performed in New Zealand for the first time, and a year after an attempted assassination on the musician’s life. Green’s biopic, which counts Marley’s children Ziggy and Cedella and his wife Rita among its producers, focuses on how the singer used music to confront his personal traumas and unite his people.
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One Love emphasizes Marley’s role as an unlikely peace broker in post-colonial Jamaica, but it doesn’t fully engage with what that means. The film acknowledges the singer’s concerns with the country’s escalating political violence in the ’70s — a decade after gaining independence from the British — but shies away from exploring the collective psychic scars of that domination or the realities of a nascent national project.
Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and Green’s screenplay underscores that for the laconic artist, the music was in the message. But what exactly did Marley want to say? One Love explores the singer’s commitment to Rastafarianism and its impact on his consciousness with a light touch. Part of the problem with Green’s film is how incurious it seems about one key reason for the musician’s popularity: that Marley’s messages — about Pan-African unity, love and equality — were beacons for a generation of Black people emerging from colonial oppression. His music offered a vision of what Jamaica could be; he believed the solutions to the world’s problems lay in the tenets of Rastafari.
One Love embarks on a somewhat considered examination of those tenets. There are moments when the film burrows into themes of mysticism and spirituality to clarify the foundational beliefs of Rastafarians. Flashbacks to Marley’s teenage years (here the musician is played by Quan-Dajai Henriques) show how the religion offered the fledgling musician community and a family. Still, for the most part, Green’s film deals in love.
Love for his people guides Marley to organize a peace concert during a contentious election year. One Love opens with a press conference in the days leading up to the anticipated 1976 Smile Jamaica Concert. Eager newspeople wonder about Marley’s political affiliations (none) and if he fears holding this kind of event (no). But what they really want to know, and what the film ultimately aims to probe, comes down to one question: “Do you believe music can end the violence?”
For Marley, music was an encounter with the otherworldly that transcended earthly preoccupations like violence. His songs inspired a spiritual experience and his concerts functioned as a kind of communion. Ben-Adir’s finely tuned performance captures the mystical relationship between Marley and his music as well as his kinetic stage presence. The British actor (Barbie, One Night in Miami) approaches becoming Marley much like Kristen Stewart did Diana in Spencer. He roots his portrayal in specific mannerisms — closing his eyes, jerking his body about as if overtaken by a holy spirit and indulging in that crooked and knowing smile. The actor wholly conjures Marley’s charisma while also teasing the musician’s sense of isolation, stemming from a childhood marked by abandonment. His compelling performance enlivens a film that otherwise feels like it’s perpetually struggling to take off.
Forty-eight hours after gunmen shoot Marley’s wife Rita (Lashana Lynch) and his manager Don Taylor (Anthony Welsh), Marley takes the stage to perform for his people. Rita and Don survive, and playing the concert despite threats on Marley’s life is an act of defiance. For Marley, who hallucinates the gunman (Top Boy’s Micheal Ward) whose bullets grazed his arm and chest, it’s also a commitment to his peace cause.
Still, the incident shakes Marley. The film jumps forward three months to show the singer exiled in London, where he and the Wailers begin working on a new album. Rita absconds to Delaware with their children and lives there with Marley’s mother (Nadine Marshall) until responsibility to the music brings her to Europe. Lynch’s portrayal of Rita — a fiercely independent woman with a strong sense of her beliefs — is inspired, a quiet, grounding counterforce to Ben-Adir’s moodier depiction. Rita tethers Marley and keeps her husband honest. It’s disappointing, then, that the film, for all its interest in love, doesn’t dig more deeply into Rita’s evolving desires.
The relationship between teenage Marley and Rita (the latter played by Nia Ashi) gives us a sense of the pair’s passionate youth. In flashbacks, we witness an endearingly timid courtship followed by an invigorating plunge into Rastafari history and culture. Older Rita is still self-possessed but, as written, there’s a distance that smooths the edges, turns her into a saintly figure and saps the character of the charge that keeps someone married for decades.
Even Marley, whom the film is smart enough not to strip of complexity, can feel flat at times. The screenplay carefully circumvents the more complicated threads of the musician’s life — notably the extramarital affairs that made him a father to 11 children — by offering other female figures just brief appearances. Their faces flash across the screen as Marley makes himself at home in London, and later as he tours throughout Europe facing rapturous crowds. But these formal gestures aren’t substantial enough to support a crucial emotional moment in the film. It’s in Paris, after a show, when Marley and Rita fight about old resentments and new problems. The scene is grippingly performed by Lynch and Ben-Adir, but its revelations are jarring because of inadequate setup.
One Love finds its footing in the music. Shooting the concert sequences with original tracks activates the nostalgic potential of the film. Green’s direction is at its most dynamic when focused on Marley and the Wailers’ electric stage presence and chemistry. Even studio sessions and impromptu jams show a cast submitting themselves to the overwhelming force of Marley’s music. The birth of Exodus marked a turn in both the musician’s artistry and commercial viability. Scenes in the studio and backstage before shows reveal how Marley worked — his high expectations, his perfectionism, his sense of humor and his devotional approach to creating music. Those moments also underscore how critical Rita’s support was to his process.
Cloaked in the languorous melodies and mellow transitions of Exodus are fiery messages of hope and collectivism. From the title track’s triumphant spin on the Ghanaian proverb Sankofa (“We know where we’re goin, uh! / We know where we’re from”) to the optimism of “Three Little Birds” (“Don’t worry about a thing / ‘cause every little thing is gonna be be alright”), it’s no wonder that Exodus went on to be considered one of the greatest albums of the 20th century. Bob Marley: One Love, at the very least, reintroduces audiences to a man who spent his life trying to make the revolution irresistible.
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