The Man, the Music, the Message: Chatting Bob Marley Biopics with Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch and the 'One Love' Team
The leads of the first major biopic about the Jamaican reggae icon, plus co-star James Norton and filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green, told us all about honouring a legend.
February 13, 2024
They're doing more than just jamming: actors Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch and James Norton, plus writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green, that is. Teaming up for Bob Marley: One Love, the first major biopic about its namesake — and a film driven by Marley's family, with wife Rita producing with children Ziggy and Cedella, plus their sibling Stephen the music supervisor — this quartet knows that their task is formidable and important. Anyone wondering whether the feature's focal point, a Jamaican icon and the initial person that anyone instantly thinks of when reggae is mentioned, could be loved is pondering a pointless question.
Ben-Adir, who stars as Bob fresh from playing one of Barbie's Kens — and steps into another real-life figure's shoes again after giving One Night in Miami its Malcolm X and TV's The Comey Rule its Barack Obama — is among Marley's fans. He has company on the movie; of course, everyone should be. "He was an artist first, and one of the great, great songwriters. I don't know if there's anyone who can write songs [like him]. Like, he's top five, but my number one," he tells Concrete Playground. So for him, his job "was always about trying to understand him as an artist, and as a father, as a man," Ben-Adir explains. "Here's a musician who dedicated his life to writing songs that we now all get to enjoy. Understanding what that meant, to play the guitar and to write that many songs, that many albums, in that ten-year period, it was just incredible."
Bob Marley: One Love arrives after documentaries have already had the sun shining on Marley's impact and legacy. A birth-to-death filmic biography isn't its aim or approach, then. The man, the music, the message: that's the movie's trinity as it hones in Bob in the late 70s, specifically around the making and touring of his 1977 album Exodus. The record was named the best album of the 20th century by TIME magazine; however, it's not just its contents but the political context in Jamaica that brought it to fruition that speaks volumes about the man behind it.
"That was a period of time of musical genius, musical creation. Bob created Exodus, which was one of the greatest albums of the 20th century — and after the assassination attempt on his life in 1976, [and the] political turmoil in Jamaica, it was just such a rich period of time," says Green. The filmmaker both directs and co-writes, in his first feature since fellow biopic King Richard. "And also, he had made several albums that we can pull from. The backbone of the story is the music. So it felt such like a rich period of time in Bob's life, before he obviously gets sick — it just felt like a really prime time in his life that that captured the essence of who the man was," Green continues.
This isn't just a story of one person, either. Turning in the picture's other powerful main performance, Captain Marvel, No Time to Die and The Woman King's Lynch is Rita to Ben-Adir's Bob. It's as much her tale as well. "Frankly, if her voice wasn't as present as it is in the movie, if she wasn't as dynamic a character as she is in the movie, I wouldn't have taken the role," Lynch advises Concrete Playground. "Because I knew from afar before I had the role who she is, what she represents, how respected she is in Jamaica, in Ghana, in different countries over the world — that if it wasn't going to be that, then I don't have any business lending my voice to that."
As for Happy Valley, Nowhere Special and Little Women star Norton, another veteran of playing real-life figures after Mr Jones and Rogue Agent, he brings influential record producer and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell to the screen. "It is daunting," he advises. "Especially if they're alive, because you know they're going to watch it — well, they might watch it one day — and there's only one person who's going to give you the full appraisal of your work: it's the person who you just played."
With Bob Marley: One Love releasing in cinemas Down Under on Wednesday, February 14, 2024, we also chatted with Ben-Adir, Green, Lynch and Norton about the importance of finding the right person to play Bob, plus making a Bob Marley movie with his family so heavily involved — as well as why a Bob Marley biopic hasn't reached screens before and learning about the singer while working on the film.
On Finding the Right Actor to Play Bob Marley — and Being That Actor
Reinaldo: "We looked at thousands of tapes from everywhere, everywhere we could find. It's just hard. It's Bob Marley. You're looking for a needle in the haystack — and we're talking really good actors — that it just was really hard to find it.
So when I saw Kingsley's tape, it was the first time that I thought it was possible. He had a look. He had an enigma. He had a vulnerability. He had a charisma. And his tape, it was pulling me closer to him. I was leaning in in a way that I hadn't leaned into any of the other tapes, and so I knew that there was a baseline. Obviously I wanted to meet him immediately.
I didn't know Kingsley or Kingsley's work — or I didn't remember 'oh, that was the guy that played that'. And so it was interesting to find it and say 'oh, okay, he was a chameleon in those movies, he was able to disappear'. And there was something quite special about that.
There was obviously a level of intelligence that I was looking for, somebody that was going to put in the work and be able to make an interpretation of Bob, rather than mimic Bob. So the tape gave me so much excitement that it was possible to even attempt to make a movie about Bob, and from that moment we went on the journey of discovering who the man was."
Kingsley: "When the audition came through, I was told that as soon as you get the tape to us, the family will see it within 24 hours. So that's a good motivation to get your shit together and prepare something meaningful or worth sharing.
That's what I always do when there's a big audition or interesting audition or something that feels substantial, you just take three to four days — you just need a bit of time to wrap your head around, in this case, Bob. I spent some time really watching him and watching him in concert and listening to some of his interviews.
And yeah, I guess when I got the call saying that Ziggy had approved and wanted me to fly over and meet him, it was a pretty special feeling. I didn't have the job, but I was going over to meet Bob's child, which is really surreal."
On Making a Movie About Bob Marley with the Help of Bob Marley's Family
Kingsley: "Ziggy remembers a lot about him. He was in Zimbabwe with his dad. He was in Jamaica. What was so amazing was that the process of building the character was with Bob's friends and family.
So I read all the books, but after a while you just go 'don't need those, I can just call people who knew Bob — I can just call people who were there in London with Bob, I can call people who are on stage with him'.
It's really incredible, looking back. It was work, there was a lot to find out and there was a lot of work to do, but I loved working with Ziggy.
All throughout the prep, we would message and talk, and then he was there with us every day on set, which was just game-changing. Neville Garrick [Bob Marley's art director] and Ziggy were with us every day from the beginning. And I mean, there wasn't a morning where Ziggy wasn't on set first. He was always there. Any questions? Anytime. And so my process was really our process — it was really a communal thing."
Lashana: "You read everything. You read her book — thank god she wrote one. You watch everything. And then you hope that it makes sense.
And it did, to a certain extent, until I called for some time with her. Then after I met her, I thought I could just throw away all the information, to be honest.
It's really helpful to have facts, but it's more the types of beings that Mrs Marley and that Bob are and were at the time for everybody, is so intricate and so beautiful, that it requires a tapping in of their level of spirituality in order for me to even portray any of her. There needs to be a spiritual connection there.
So I ensured that the energy was right, and whenever I didn't feel like I was approaching her well, I had to just take a beat with myself and remember who she is and what she deserves. And thankfully, this production knew that we had the children's support and guidance throughout the shoot. That helped us really get to those sweet spots in the movie."
Reinaldo: "It was quite special obviously to meet Ziggy for the first time, and to understand why they were making this movie — and why me, and just try to try to get an understanding of that.
Ziggy had seen a short film of mine called Stone Cars. It wasn't even the King Richard Oscar [attention] — he was talking about my short film, which I shot in South Africa, and I thought that was really interesting because I shot that film with no money, with no lights, all natural light. And it was raw, and I think that's what he was after. He was after something raw. He was after something pure. And once I knew that, I knew that he wanted to make something quite special.
So that was just a connection. It was an immediate connection, somebody's valuing your short film work as a filmmaker. Since then I had learned a lot, so I was like 'okay, I can take what I learned from my short films and bring that to that'. I can bring that kind of energy. I can bring a City of God energy to this film in a way that maybe we hadn't seen on the screen, or I was hoping that that what we were trying to achieve was something different — not necessarily a musical biopic; a movie like City of God or Black Orpheus, something that felt organic and pure and raw.
We were aligned right away when it came to that, to the visuals in the film, and what I wanted to look and feel like. I'm very grateful to him for that, and that was the start to a three-year-long journey."
On the Process of Stepping Into Such Influential Figures' Shoes
Kingsley: "What was really exciting about it originally, he's an icon and a hero and everyone knows Bob, and there's a huge pressure around that and the family are involved, but really when I started working, it was about understanding the musician — and understanding the meaning of his songs, and understanding what it was that Bob was trying to do.
And my mind was just blown. I'd spend a few days on an album, then I'd move on to another one, then I'd get stuck on a song, then I'd be on that song for four weeks.
And Cedella, Bob's daughter, sent me some files that only the family have. There were a number of interviews that are not available on YouTube or anywhere. I was listening to them and transcribing them all the way through, even when we were shooting. It was just amazing to get to listen to Bob talk over a 12-year-period so extensively about his religious beliefs, about writing, about life, about everything."
Lashana: "I wanted to make sure that she was authentically portrayed, and that she was given the light and the flowers that she deserves — and that her spirit and her energy was in the film. So it was important for me to be able to rest firm in that at the beginning, and then be able to impart, I guess, the wisdom and the information that I gained from meeting her into the script and onto set.
I think that the most-daunting thing at the very beginning was the fact that I have a responsibility to Jamaica. I represent Jamaica to the fullest. I'm of Jamaican heritage. My parents were born there. And also this is one of the queens of our country. So I knew that the responsibility was going to be big and that this had to be right.
Once I saw how weighty that responsibility was, I just threw it away and decided to just focus on Mrs Marley, because she's who has the voice here and she's who people are going to remember — whether they're learning more about her because they know her already, or they don't know her and they're learning her for the first time. I wanted her portrayal to be balanced."
James: "Chris Blackwell was a legend in his own right. In terms of music producers through the ages, there's no one really like him. As people have said, he's more one to introduce reggae to the world than anyone. And if you look at his roster of talent that he's represented and careers that he's launched, his taste is immaculate and he's clearly brilliant at his job.
Also, the way that he kind of cross-pollinated, the way that he brought Junior Marvin into The Wailers because he knew the sound it would bring, which is nodded to in the movie — the guy's a genius.
I think most music producers would say that there's only been one Chris Blackwell and there only will be one.
So it was a responsibility to get him right. It was a pleasure and a privilege to learn about him. It was a privilege to meet him in Jamaica when we premiered the film, and I got to shake his hand — and I think he was approving of my portrayal. He didn't seem too upset, which is which is a relief."
On Why a Bob Marley Biopic Hasn't Reached Screens Before
Reinaldo: "I think time. Time wasn't right. I know they tried to make it for 30 years. Neville Garrick, who was our consulting producer on the film, told me I think he had tried to make it for 25 years.
I had heard names like Oliver Stone and Scorsese, and many, many directors at some point, because everybody loves Bob. I just think time wasn't on their side. Time was on my side. It was the family's time.
I think it was hopefully finding the right filmmaker. I think there's a time for everything and for whatever reason, this was our time. And we had to run with it. And also part of it was discovering who was going to play Bob. I think for so long it was trying to find who could carry the weight, who could carry that burden in in a lot of ways. Fortunately for us, it was Kingsley."
On Learning More About Bob Marley by Making the Film
James: "I was a fan, but like a lot of people, my life as a fan was limited to legend. I think probably when I was a teenager I was given or I brought that compilation, and I gorged on it. It became really, genuinely an important part of my teenage years and my 20s. He provided an apt soundtrack to those periods: the upbeat, celebratory moments; the crashes; the lower, more-pensive moments with 'Redemption Song' or whatever it might be.
So I listened to his music and I didn't really know much about the context. And this is why I think this film for me and for hopefully the audience is going to be so important, because you realise that his message is so much bigger than his music. As there's a line in the film, the message and the music can't be separated.
But it's been a real journey, a real revelation to me, to understand more about the man and where that message came from — and the fact that it came from struggle.
Reinaldo: "I was definitely a fan. Grew up with the music in my household. My dad named me Reinaldo Marcus Green after Marcus Garvey [the Jamaican political activist], who Bob had studied, and so there were all these kismet signs that I was somehow supposed to be the person that helped bring this story to life. And I resisted it like I resist everything. 'Why me? It's too much. It's too hard. This is crazy. This is Bob Marley!'.
But it was something about Bob in particular. He's a superhero. He's really unlike any other musician. He's like Peter Parker — he's a common man who then puts on a cape at night and rescues us with his music. It's a fantasy, and it's amazing when you see somebody that has that ability to transform our lives with his music. I mean, it's very rare to get that.
You see the face, you see the image on the T-shirts and it's like 'who is that? Who is that man?'. I think we always we always feel that. He's a revolutionary, his spirit, what he was singing for.
So going on that discovery was amazing. I only knew the tunes, right? Very rarely do you dissect lyrics. And that was the quest for me in this film, was really trying to understand where the music was coming from.
I wasn't so well-versed in Jamaican politics, what was happening at that time, what was really going on — and Jamaica's rich history, and colonialism, and what was happening in politics. And so it was a great way for me to rediscover that period of time and do it through his music. I was hoping that we can weave the film in a way that the music comes out in a very organic way in the film that feels part of the fabric of how we made the movie; it's the DNA, it's the backbone, but it's not a musical."
Bob Marley: One Love releases in cinemas Down Under on Wednesday, February 14, 2024. Read our review.
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