Bob Marley: One Love

Another music biopic, another spectacular lead performance — this time from Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley.
Sarah Ward
Published on February 13, 2024
Updated on February 18, 2024

Overview

There's no doubting who Bob Marley: One Love is about, but the Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard)-directed biopic also brings two other big-screen portraits of music superstars to mind. There's always a dance through a legend's history flickering somewhere, or close to it, with the initial dramatised look at the reggae icon arriving after Bohemian Rhapsody and Elvis both proved major hits in recent years. Where the first, which focused on Freddie Mercury, had Live Aid, Bob Marley: One Love has the One Love Peace Concert. Both are gigs to build a movie around, and both features have done just that. Baz Luhrmann's portrait of the king of rock 'n' roll wanted its audience to understand what it was like to watch its namesake, be in his presence and feel entranced by every hip thrust — and, obviously without the gyrating pelvis, Bob Marley: One Love also opts for that approach.

Enter Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley, in a vital piece of casting. Although it may not earn him an Oscar as Bohemian Rhapsody did Rami Malek (Oppenheimer), or even a nomination as Elvis scored for Austin Butler (Masters of the Air), the British actor turns in a phenomenal performance. He's worlds away from being a Ken in Barbie. He isn't in wholly new territory seeing that he played Malcolm X in One Night in Miami and Barack Obama in TV series The Comey Rule. He's also magnetic and mesmerising — and, in the process, expresses how and why Marley was magnetic and mesmerising. Ben-Adir's vocals are blended with Marley's. Accordingly, you're largely listening to the singer himself. But there's a presence about Ben-Adir in the part, perfecting Jamaican patois, getting kinetic and uninhibited in his movement while he's behind the microphone, radiating charisma, but also conveying purpose and self-possession. It's a portrayal that's as entrancing and alive as the music that's always echoing alongside it; with Marley's discography, that's saying something.

Ben-Adir shares the part with Quan-Dajai Henriques, the acting debutant who gives the movie its younger version of Marley. That comes via sporadic flashbacks, which means that Lashana Lynch (The Marvels) also shares her role as Bob's wife and backup singer Rita with Nia Ashi (another feature first-timer) as the teen version. Green and his co-scribes Terence Winter (an Academy Award-nominee for The Wolf of Wall Street), Frank E Flowers (LeBron James biopic Shooting Stars) and Zach Baylin (Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story, and returning from King Richard) ground their picture in the elder Marley's life, though — not that, because he died at the age of 36, he could ever truly be deemed elder. The bulk of the feature is set between 1976–78, and between two Kingston concerts. Both were designed to help address Jamaica's political unrest, with two parties clashing and the impact of British colonialism still felt. Not only that peace and freedom were instrumental in Marley's message, but why, is a core element of the film.

"Do you believe music can end the violence?" Marley is asked in Bob Marley: One Love's opening, where he's fronting the press days out from 1976's Smile Jamaica show. Green signals one of the movie's fundamental musings at the outset, then, as well as his intent to unpack how his subject aimed to counter not just political but human turmoil through his music and Rastafarian beliefs (his initial embrace of the religion, as well as his early courtship with Rita, fuels most of the film's jumps backwards). Marley is also queried about whether he harbours any fears about putting on the gig. He says no and soon demonstrates it, after an attempt is made on his life at his home studio two days out from the concert. Rita was among the victims shot, and survived. The show goes on, then Marley goes into exile in London, while Rita takes the kids to the US.

To get to Bob Marley: One Love's second big Jamaican performance involves charting the defining aspect of Marley's career during that period: 1977 album Exodus. Recorded in the UK, and home to not just its own titular track but the flick's (and also 'Jamming', 'Turn Your Lights Down Low' and 'Three Little Birds'), it's as influential as albums get — and, again, unfurling the trains of thought driving it is one of the feature's motivations. There's few surprises in how Green brings this to the screen, complete with recording sessions, producer Chris Blackwell's (James Norton, Happy Valley) fingerprints and montages of the finished product flying off shelves, plus the rapturous response as it's toured. That there's several established templates in giving a star's story the filmic treatment reverberates through Bob Marley: One Love, in fact, even as it avoids the dutiful birth-to-death timeline. But the movie always has Ben-Adir imparting energy and vibrancy, and Lynch as well — and a determination to make this Rita's tale, stepping into the complications in their marriage, as well as Bob's.

Notably unrelated to One Love: The Bob Marley Musical, the stage production about the legend — even if it uses plenty of the same Bob Marley and The Wailers songs, such as 'Get Up, Stand Up', 'War', 'Redemption Song', 'No Woman, No Cry', 'Is This Love' and 'I Shot the Sheriff' — Bob Marley: One Love unavoidably hits familiar beats. Enlivening those predictable moves are its tunes, compelling story and powerhouse central performances. This is a deeply respectful effort: Rita is among the producers, alongside her and Bob's children Ziggy and Cedella; Stephen, their third-born, is the music supervisor. Love was always going to shine through. The tunes were always going to resound with power and affection. The tale itself was always certain to prove inherently absorbing. Its casting couldn't be more important, however. After a lengthy search to find its Bob, Ben-Adir is a force of warmth, calm and potency — gifting the picture the kind of portrayal that it couldn't live without — while Lynch is formidably fierce as Rita.

For a movie about someone so revolutionary, Bob Marley: One Love mightn't earn that description itself, but it does deliver the tribute it's striving for, celebrate Marley's message as much as his music and contextualise one helluva record. Indeed, where Bohemian Rhapsody was the silver-screen equivalent of a greatest-hits album and Elvis took its cues from concert spectaculars, Bob Marley: One Love is a jam-session type of flick. When it briefly recreates live shows, it does so with verve, as aided by cinematographer Robert Elswit (also back from King Richard). And yet, while Smile Jamaica and the One Love Peace Concert are pivotal — including structurally to the narrative — they aren't the primary way that the film lets its audience experience Marley's impact. When Bob Marley: One Love dives into Bob's creativity and just enjoys being in the moment with its take on the singer, it cuts deeper; no one is merely jamming in making this movie, but it hopes its viewers like jamming with Marley, too.

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