Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Bob Marley: One Love. A Review (Review #1796)



It is the rare person who does not like either reggae or its most well-known ambassador, Bob Marley. Bob Marley: One Love is a Marley estate approved biopic on the superstar. That may be the problem. 

Covering the years 1976 to 1978, One Love details certain events in the life of Jamaican Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Amir). We start with the troubles inflicting the island nation, with rival factions vying for power. Amidst the chaos, Marley has decided to host Smile Jamaica, a peace concert to unite the people. Nefarious forces, however, do not want the Smile Jamaica concert to go on. 

This leads to an assassination attempt days before the concert. Bob Marley's wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch) is seriously injured, barely surviving. Bob is hit but not majorly injured. Despite continued protests, Marley rises to the occasion to be the Smile Jamaica headliner.

Still, it is unsafe, so he sends his wife and children to live with his mother in Maryland while he goes to London. Here, he sees the rise of punk music and, while overhearing the Ernest Gold score to the film Exodus, he is inspired musically to create his own work. Marley finds kinship in both Gold's stirring opening theme and the struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland, matching his own hopes for his Rastafarian faith. Out of Exodus the soundtrack, comes Exodus the reggae album. 

While Exodus is a major worldwide hit, Marley still cannot get tour dates to Africa. He also has to deal with shady business practices from Don Taylor (Anthony Welsh), his business manager. Finally, he has a melanoma diagnosis that will ultimately kill him in 1981. He does, however, return to Jamaica and in archival footage, see Bob Marley perform at the independence celebration for the new African nation of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the most curious element in Bob Marley: One Love is how the film failed to make a case as to why anyone would care about Bob Marley. This is especially true for anyone who does not already know Marley or his music. There may be a few people unaware of who Bob Marley, the artist, was. One Love will not enlighten them given that his creative evolution is so haphazardly handled. In a sense, One Love almost expects the viewer to have some background about Marley and reggae. 

A lot of One Love expects you to have at the least a Wikipedia-sized knowledge about the subject. The film spends its first thirty-odd minutes on the Smile Jamaica story. In a lot of biopics, the events leading up to the concert would have been the film itself, with Smile Jamaica being the triumphant conclusion. However, One Love feels oddly rushed to get to what it thinks is a major turning point in the Marley story. 

I do not doubt that getting shot at is a major turning point, but outside of archival footage we do not get a firm background into the chaos in Jamaica or the violence in Kingston. Why are there two opposing camps? Why is Marley in particular targeted? Why does he have this hold among the Jamaican people? Same goes for when creating Exodus. What inspired him to delve into deeper subjects? It is, if not strictly speaking a guessing game at least an unanswered question. 

As a side note, I am dubious that Gold's Exodus score, brilliant and iconic as it now is, did inspire Marley's Exodus album. 

Over and over, One Love fails to make Marley interesting. We do not get the man or the myth. Instead, we get bits and pieces of each, never forming a full portrait of either. That may be due to having four screenwriters: Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green (with story by Winter and Flowers). Having so many people made One Love unfocused, as if unsure of where to go. The decision to focus, or at least hit on, two events (the Smile Jamaica concert and Exodus recording) were curious ones. I figure a whole film could have been made on either. A whole film could have been built around his Zimbabwe concert. One Love could have also been a straightforward birth-to-earth biopic.

Instead, it just went here and there, never building on anything.

Part of One Love's failed efforts to make a case for a Marley biopic may be due to the Marley estate itself. Having the Marley family approve the film (we get Marley's son Ziggy open the film telling us as much). With the Marley family looking over things, we get a surprisingly clean and safe portrait of the man. Very few hints are made about Marley's myriad infidelities. Rita mentions it in passing, and there are two "blink-and-you-miss-them" moments where another woman may be visiting Marley. It is a strange decision to attempt to whitewash Marley's less admirable qualities.

It is stranger to not show us his creativity. Again, we get bits and pieces, but they amount to little.

Some credit can be given to the lead performances. Ben-Adir did his best to capture Marley's accent and body movements. However, that is all he did (and as a side note, I thought he was going to topple over in dizziness after performing War). Part of the blame is the script, but part of it has to be with Ben-Adir. Lynch was slightly better, but not by much. If there was any sense of anger about Marley's womanizing, we wouldn't know it. We also wouldn't know of her own infidelities through One Love

Come to think of it, we do not know Bob and Rita Marley through One Love. Perhaps the 2012 documentary Marley would be more informative (though I have yet to see it as of this writing). Until then, Bob Marley: One Love fails to even be a good primer on what should have been a fascinating subject. As it stands, no one will be Jamming to Bob Marley: One Love.


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