The formulaic Bob Marley: One Love won’t get up, stand up

Hugely influential reggae artist Bob Marley gets the big screen treatment in a bland, friction-free film riddled with many of the music biopic genre’s shortcomings, writes Luke Buckmaster.

One love, one heart, one thousand music biopic clichés. In the new film dramatising the life of Bob Marley (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir), the brilliant, seismically influential reggae musician experiences dramatic visions from the past when he fronts the stage. In one he’s encircled by a ring of fire; in another, confronted by a man who attempted to assassinate him. This sort of visually-oriented dramatic conjecture befits the cinematic experience, but rarely rings true and almost never has subtlety. We immediately understand the subject is Searching His Soul, Looking Inside, and Facing His Fears, while preparing for the Performance of His Life.

In moments like these, it’s clear director Reinaldo Marcus Green hasn’t seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Jake Kasdan’s brilliant parody of the music biopic genre, which in fact begins with John C. Reilly’s protagonist clutching a wall, steeling himself before a big gig, intense memories flooding his mind. “Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays,” explains one of his confidantes. If Green had seen it, there’s no way he’d make this trope-filled venerational biopic that sings from a very familiar songsheet and comes not just with the blessing of Marley’s family, but also their involvement—four, including Marley’s widow Rita, credited as producers.

Legend-wise Bob Marley is like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Napoleon Bonaparte or Joan of Arc. In the end they all become fridge magnets and DALL-E input prompts, adrift in an ever-changing zeitgeist, repackaged according to the mores of the times. Marley was a firebrand political activist who pumped out powerful protest songs, from basic calls to stand up for your rights (“get up, stand up / don’t give up the fight”) to edgier work such as I Shot the Sheriff, in which he advocates targeted justice: taking out real powerbrokers and authoritarians rather than their underlings. But Marley was rebranded with a gentler brush, coalescing with cannabis culture to form the saintly, huggable, peace-advocating Rastafarean.

The screenwriters of Bob Marley: One Love (Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and Reinaldo Marcus Green) attempt to return some of his activist clout by contextualizing their narrative as one about, in part, Marley’s efforts to put on a big concert in a violently fractious Jamaica circa 1976. But their hearts don’t seem to be in it. Despite dramatising an attempt on his life, during which Rita (Lashana Lynch) was shot, the film feels friction-free and edgeless.

After the shooting, the concert is put on hold and Marley and his entourage head to the UK, where they record his seminal album Exodus. There’s lots of jamming, lots of noodling on guitar, but never scenes that register much impact. Nor are the performances very good. Lashana Lynch is the highlight as Rita, though her character feels under-developed; meanwhile, in the crucial role, Kingsley Ben-Adir lacks presence and gravitas—the acting equivalent of a safe and flavourless cover song.

One expects a music biopic to deliver plenty of needle drops, but even by the genre’s generous standards One Love is very jukeboxy, whisking through the big tracks, determined to squeeze them all in. Their placement can feel awfully contrived; ditto for the dialogue and scenarios accompanying them. For instance after Marley performs Redemption Song around a fire, to his children, Rita asks when he wrote it, and he responds: “all my life.” His wife, recast as the sage sensei, informs him that “you are ready.” Ready to return to Jamaica; ready for that concert; ready to confront the wall of fire. In another emotionally-charged moment, the pair have a loud argument outside a club, long-held grievances rising to the surface. As soon as it’s over, Green plays No Woman No Cry.

The cringey obviousness of this placement reminded me of a laughable “lightbulb moment” from the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, when Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter interrupts the hard-partying protagonist by screaming “you can’t walk no line!” The film then cuts to Cash in a studio, recording the title track. Painting legends through formula is risky business, perpetuating the iconography of the subject through boilerplate codes and conventions. I came out of One Love uninvigorated, unmoved, and annoyed: here’s another great, boundary-pushing artist reduced to glossy pap.