Bob Marley: One Love is a strange mixture of the authentic and the broad. Taking place in a perma-fug of ganja smoke, director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s (King Richard) intermittently engaging portrait of the reggae superstar is shot through with sincere intentions, but too often leans into the trite.
In some senses, it most resembles Bohemian Rhapsody in its inclination to tell its story in the most obvious, ham-fisted strokes (when a character comes to Marley asking for redemption, cut to the singer playing ‘Redemption Song’). But happily, also like Bohemian Rhapsody, it is (ahem) redeemed by a great central performance, this time by Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami…), who finds a truth in Marley the writing and direction can’t.
The movie starts strong. At the height of his fame in 1976, the politically neutral Marley agrees to headline the Smile Jamaica Concert, an attempt to diffuse the country’s rising tensions brought about by conflicts between the governing People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party. Two days before the concert, Marley survives an assassination attempt, but decides to take to the stage anyway. It’s an act of commitment and conviction that feels like it would provide a satisfying end to a movie as opposed to the beginning of one.
Marley decides to skip town and moves to London (cue a run in with coppers over the lions in Trafalgar Square rather than Zion) to record his ultimately groundbreaking album ‘Exodus’. At this point, One Love sinks into musical biopic clichés, some entertaining (a jam session that fancifully sees them create one of their biggest hits), some risible (a shot of hands literally grabbing albums as an indication of the album going viral). The highlight here is Marley looking bemused at a Clash gig as the punk rockers slam dance to ‘White Riot’ (outside there is a riot going on, it’s that kind of film).
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s redeemed by a great central performance
The second half tries to drum up some drama – an argument over an African tour, some marital discord between Bob and wife Rita (Lashana Lynch) – but instead it lulls into connective tissue between enjoyable renditions of the hits. Momentum is also dissipated when, any time Marley is in a quiet moment, he is hit by a case of flashback-itis, spooling back to his childhood, his nascent romance with Rita, and an admittedly joyous performance of ‘Simmer Down’ by The Wailing Wailers that earns them a record deal. On top of this, there is a recurring image of Marley as a child chased by a horse through a crop field on fire that is initially striking, but gets tiresome by the time the rider is revealed.
Marley is painted in saintly hues – to wit there are a lot of family members listed in the end credits – but Ben-Adir’s performance keeps it convincing. From Marley’s easygoing charm to his thoughtfulness to his erratic dance moves, the actor’s performance is natural as it is nuanced. He is matched by Lynch, who adds sensitivity and empathy to a potentially one-note ‘Voice Of Reason’ character. Alongside the magical music, a mixture of Marley recordings and cast vocals, they emerge head and shoulders above the film that surrounds them.
In cinemas worldwide Feb 14