Review: Bob Marley: One Love Has a Narrow Focus on the Complicated, Robust Life of the Musician and Activist

Rather than attempt to tell the complete life story of iconic singer/songwriter Bob Marley, the latest from director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, King Richard, Joe Bell), Bob Marley: One Love, centers on two significant periods in his life and career—his initial break that got him and his band The Wailers into the music business, and his self-imposed exile after an assassination attempt out of Jamaica to London to record his landmark album Exodus. Thankfully, both periods also mark important milestones in Marley’s relationship with wife Rita (played as a teenager by Nia Ashi and adult by the great Lashana Lynch), since the marriage drama between the two forms something of a backbone for this thin narrative.

Naturally, you come to a Marley biopic hoping to hear music—and I believe you hear most of Exodus during the course of the film. But you also hope to get a certain amount of insight into both Marley (played as a teen by Quan-Dajai Henriques and most of the time as an adult by Kingsley Ben-Adir) as a person and a musical leader; Marley was so popular in his native Jamaica that he was beloved and admired more than any politician. But he had his critics, some of whom attempted to kill him, Rita, and most of his band. Right off the bat, the film fails to give us even a surface-level explanation about what was going on in the country that would inspire anyone to take a shot at Marley, and so much of what happens in One Love seems to assume we know a great deal about the man going into it. For a great deal of the movie, Marley is seen in the company of a guy called Chris, who is actually Chris Blackwell (James Norton), founder of the singer’s label, Island Records. But if you don’t know that going in, you have to pick it up from context clues that simply aren’t there.

Still, once Marley gets to London and is exposed to the music of The Clash or spends a little time with his famous fans, like Mick and Bianca Jagger, he becomes charged enough to know he wants Exodus to have more of a rock edge to it. He needed it to sound like a fired-up evolution/revolution and not more of the same. He wanted the album to capture his headspace in that moment, but the film undercuts that by not letting us see the militant, more emotional side of Marley. The only time we get a convincing portrayal of things going on under the surface are his conflicts with his wife about his philandering, other children, and general disrespect of their marriage. When he goes to London, he sends her and their young kids to America to live in relative safety, but that gives him the opportunity to cheat on her with impunity, and their discussions of the situation are tense, revealing, and the best non-musical moments in the movie.

There are no issues with the acting in One Love. Ben-Adir and Lynch are exceptional, and the working relationship they display is believable, showing the balance in their home life and work schedule. Since Rita was in the band as one of his backup singers, they were rarely separated when in Jamaica. And much as he did portraying Malcolm X in One Night in Miami, Ben-Adir simply embodies his character, as a man determining his political stance to the musician wanting to put forth a message of not only unity and love, but also outrage and defiance. The two actors give spirited performances that, unfortunately, are not serviced well by the thin script (by four writers, including the director) and bizarrely short running time. I wish the film had dug deeper, both emotionally and into other parts of Marley’s musical life. What’s here isn’t terrible; it just doesn’t feel complete, even if telling only a fraction of his accomplishments.

The film is playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.