Whether it’s a top-tier music biopic such as “Ray” or “Walk the Line” or “Straight Outta Compton,” or just-OK fare along the lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I often find myself cueing up the catalog of the featured performer(s) in the days and weeks after the screening. It’s only natural, yes? The movies get you in the mood to hear the original recordings, to revisit the greatness of the movie’s subject.
This is particularly the case with the straightforward and conventional yet consistently involving “Bob Marley: One Love,” with Kingsley Ben-Adir turning in a screen-commanding performance as the legendary reggae pioneer who was just 36 when he died of cancer in 1981. Even when the camerawork goes overboard in framing Marley as a Christ-like figure, even when we’re ticking off nearly every scene in the Music Biopic Playbook, we know there’s always another concert or recording scene around the corner — and every time the cinematic interpretations of Bob Marley and the Wailers start to play, we’re moving with the infectious rhythms and soaking in the poetry and meaning of the lyrics.
With Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Joe Bell,” “King Richard”) providing surehanded, docu-drama style direction and an ensemble cast led by Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley providing invaluable supporting work, “Bob Marley: One Love” should prove worthy to hardcore Marley fans and also serve as a wonderful introduction to those who might know only one or two Marley classics.
Save for a series of flashbacks to Marley’s hardscrabble upbringing, with some heavy-handed symbolic references to his absentee father, “One Love” takes the approach of many a modern-day biopic, e.g., “Capote,” “Lincoln,” “Marshall,” “Oppenheimer,” in that it focuses primarily on a pivotal slice of the subject’s life rather than the full Wikipedia “Early Life” to “Death” formula once favored by Hollywood.
In this case, the film zooms in on the years 1976-1978, with Marley’s fame starting to skyrocket as post-colonial Jamaica is embroiled in violent conflict, with warring gang leaders fighting for turf and rival political leaders only fanning the flames. Even after gunmen burst into Marley’s home and he survives an assassination attempt, Marley insists on going through with a unity concert, and for glorious one night he creates a vision of a unified country — but he realizes the time has come for the family to leave Jamaica for their own safety. Marley heads to London, while Rita and the children temporary move to Delaware to live with Marley’s mother (Nadine Marshall).
Director Green and the production design team do an admirable job of re-creating recording sessions and live performances and capturing the ambiance of the late 1970s time period. We witness Marley’s ascent to global superstar with the release of “Exodus” (which Time magazine called the most important album of the 20th century), and we also witness arguably the most marijuana smoke-infused scenes this side of a Cheech & Chong movie.
The film largely glosses over the more complicated parts of Marley’s life — he had numerous extramarital affairs and fathered a total of 11 children — until a devastatingly powerful sequence in which Rita joins her husband in London, sees him reveling in the spoils of success and calls him out for losing sight of his true self and his true calling. (We also get a few well-timed moments of light humor, as when Michael Gandolfini’s awkward American record executive is flummoxed when presented with the cover art for “Exodus” because it doesn’t have a picture of Marley.)
If there’s any doubt Kingsley Ben-Adir is a world-class talent, consider that in the last few years, in addition to inhabiting Bob Marley’s persona, he was Barack Obama on the TV miniseries “The Comey Rule” and Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami,” and he even popped in as Basketball Ken in “Barbie.” His work is transcendent here, in the heavy dramatic scenes and in the exhilarating performance numbers.
When you think of experimental music biopics such as “The Doors” and even “Rocketman,” well … “Bob Marley: One Love” is the very opposite of that. Given the revolutionary nature of Marley’s music and the often-chaotic state of his life, it’s reasonable that some might find this to be a disappointingly formulaic handling of the material, with only a few stylistic flourishes that take place mostly in the flashback sequences. Still, this is strong work, showcasing the indelible legacy of an artist who was gone far too soon.