Biopics about musical icons can make for very compelling films. Tina Turner’s life was explored in explicit and ultimately triumphant detail in What’s Love Got To Do With It? while the heart of Selena Quintanilla Perez was captured to its fullest in Selena. Some feature great performances, but the overall narrative is lacking (Bohemian Rhapsody). While others put a unique spin on a fascinating life (Rocketman). In the case of Bob Marley: One Love, the film treads closer to Bohemian Rhapsody territory where the central performance is engaging and deserving of praise, but the movie itself never fully comes together. Bob Marley’s life is certainly worthy of the cinematic treatment. While One Love does a few things right, the project never quite drives home the reason why Bob Marley remains one of the music’s most unforgettable artists.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, who is no stranger to bringing real-life stories to the big screen, having helmed King Richard with Will Smith, and writers Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, and Zach Baylin, alongside Green himself; decide to begin the story with Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) already established as Jamaica’s brightest shining star before he achieves global recognition due to albums like Exodus. The movie makes it clear that he was indeed one of the most important voices of his generation in music at the time; who also achieved almost mythic status due to his untimely death from cancer at the age of 36. While it’s clear that Marley had a lot to say, the movie glosses over far too much. The audience is short-changed on moments that could’ve been expertly dramatized on-screen.
The decision to center the project during a certain point in Marley’s life is a welcomed change and a detriment. In some ways, it allows the movie to avoid similar beats accustomed to other biopics that depict a person’s life. You can only see so many rise and fall before they rise again, stories about musicians before they get tired. On the other hand, since the film is focused on a particular period of his life; you miss out on a deeper dive into what makes him tick and the internal aspects of his life that lead up to his dreams of playing concerts in Africa.
The audience is given some flashbacks to try filling in the blanks of what we’re missing from his life, but it’s never quite enough. Everything is very surface level. It’s up to Kingsley Ben-Adir to convey all of Marley’s passions. Something he’s up to the task for, but he can’t carry all the weight; although he surely does a good job.
There was some hesitation that the British Ben-Adir could play the Jamaican icon; with some Jamaicans declaring he was a poor choice since he’s not Jamaican. Jennifer Lopez endured similar criticisms when she was cast as the Mexican-American Selena since she’s Puerto Rican. As was the situation in that case when Lopez’s magnetism won fans over; the same should happen for Ben-Adir who continues to prove himself to be a first-class actor. He dons a Jamaican accent that, while having moments of falling short of perfection, is spot-on enough not to be distracting.
He also fully comes alive when performing as the singer. Achieving an almost electric status that brings the icon back to life. It should be noted that Ben-Adir was not a trained musician when he accepted the role. He learned how to sing and play guitar to capture Marley more authentically. He performed all of the songs with his own voice during filming, although Marley’s voice is laid over his for the film.
To showcase that Ben-Adir did learn how to carry a tune, his actual voice is used during quieter moments. Particularly when Marley is shown writing songs on the couch while playing acoustic guitar. For someone who had zero training as a musician ahead of making the film; Ben-Adir makes the audience believe it’s second nature to him. In terms of capturing Marley’s personality, the actor is also good at portraying his laid-back nature while also conveying his passion for being politically committed.
Also of note is Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley, who is able to turn her role of supportive partner into much more than it is on paper. When she declares, “I have to be a wife and a soldier,” you believe her convictions. Like Ben-Adir, Lynch is also a British performer who has to depict a Jamaican accent accurately and she does so effortlessly. The script short-changes the roles a bit, but the actress gives the part the appropriate power to shine through. She also shares an impeccable chemistry with Ben-Adir that allows their connection to be one of the aspects of the film that shines through.
In a time when audiences are complaining about long runtimes; One Love could’ve used even more to tell its story properly. At 104 minutes, the movie isn’t long enough to do Bob Marley justice. For instance, Marley’s desire to play concerts in Africa is a plot point that drives him. The film decides to show this footage over the end credits. This could’ve been a great moment to dramatize, much like Bohemian Rhapsody did with the Live-Aid concert, which proved to be the best moment of that film.
Green does find a bit of authenticity from filming in Jamaica. It gives the film an added credibility that is missing from aspects of the script. Also, fans of Marley’s music will be pleased that they are not short-changed throughout the film. All of his signature songs are on display. Some are used a bit too on the nose; as when Marley is injured during a shoot-out shortly after performing “I Shot The Sheriff”; and when we hear “No Woman No Cry” after his life Rita is badly hurt and in the hospital. Perhaps the best musical moment is one of its most low-key. When “Jamming” is heard as they record it in the studio, it stands out as a powerful moment because it’s much more organic and authentic.
It’s almost frustrating that Bob Marley: One Love isn’t better. There is no doubt that it has entertainment value due to the music and the performances of its leads; but it never quite comes together as something truly great. It gives into too many tired music bio tropes to break away from the mold, and if it weren’t for the power of Marley’s music and Ben-Adir’s ability to breathe new life into the icon, there wouldn’t be much to recommend.
Bob Marley: One Love hits screens on February 14.
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