Bob Marley One Love: The Narrow Focus Hurts this Music Biopic

A man and three women perform on a music stage
Kingsley Ben-Adir as BOB, Anna-Share Blake as JUDY, Lashana Lynch as RITA, Naomi Cowan as MARCIA in BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE

Bob Marley joins the league of singers garnering a music biopic in Bob Marley: One Love, the first narrative feature about the iconic Jamaican pioneer of the reggae genre. Created in partnership with Marley's family, the film is directed by Reinald Marcus Green (King Richard) and written by Green, Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, and Zach Baylin.

Music biopics, and all biopics, can often fall into the trap of feeling like a dry Wikipedia page by trying to shoehorn an entire life or career into one two-hour movie. One Love avoids this misstep but maybe goes too far the other direction. The film covers a mere two-year span in Marley's career and story. After an assassination attempt on his family's life, he leaves Jamaica for a self-imposed exile in London. The film posits that this time away from home spurred a spiritual and creative awakening of his soul, resulting in an evolution in his music. He and the Wailers produce the album Exodus, perhaps echoing Marley's identification as a chosen one without a home. This album included elements of blues, soul, and British Rock, and the lyrics carried clear messages about politics and religion. 
A man returning home hugs his children by a car

This narrow focus keeps the film from being like a book report but may also frustrate viewers (like me) who don't know much about Marley's life and career outside of this focus. Save for minimal exposition details that appear on the screen at the start of the film, there's no context for why Marley became such a political threat that people wanted to stop him from performing the Smile Jamaica concert that prompted the assassination attempt. I found myself wondering about his trajectory before this incident and who the people in his orbit were to him. Sure, the story includes flashbacks that reveal some details, but it's not enough to clarify why he's so revered. I felt as if I was reading a middle chapter of a book without the beginning to help make sense of the pieces offered.

The movie tries to do some good things with mixed results. It wants to show us how the move to London changed his sound and his development as a political figure and broker of peace. It also refuses to put Marley on a pedestal. He was a man with flaws and fears, and the screenplay shows what these might have been in a matter-of-fact way. There are recreated performances and key events depicted, and yet, the runtime isn't stuffed to the gills with a timeline of "greatest moments." There's more space dedicated to Marley's interior life and what might have been going through his head during his time away from Jamaica. The film explores his Rastafarian religion, too, it surprising connections to Christianity and Judaism. You could tell that the creative team was trying to avoid the traps of the biopic.
A woman washes a man's hair
Lashana Lynch as RITA, Kingley Ben-Adir as BOB in BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE

But the results leave us with more questions than answers. Most importantly, while we see him performing music, too little time was spent on his process as a musician. The best music biopics, like Walk the Line (Johnny Cash) and Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson) include these key moments of artistry that make you want to dive into an artist's catalog. These stories demonstrate how the their music intersects with their life. I left the theater knowing more facts about Marley's life but precious little about his who he was as a musician and creator of songs. 

The cast did nothing for me except for Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley and Lashana Lynch as his wife, Rita. Both carry natural charisma that always grabs and holds my attention. Ben-Adir has the most screen time, of course, but Lynch manages to hold her own, even thought she's gone for a good chunk of the movie. Both they, and the rest of the cast playing Jamaican characters, speak with thick Jamaican accents. I appreciate the use of authentic ways of speaking, but it was often difficult to make out what was said. This movie needed captions for English speakers, especially when Bob and Rita are arguing or feeling strong emotions. Maybe on my second watch, I can use captions and understand the movie, and the man, better.
A band performs songs in a music studio

This biopic includes some intriguing content but ultimately left me frustrated at the end result. Marley is such an important figure in music, and this movie doesn't do his legacy justice. I know it was made in partnership with his family, but that collaboration may have hamstrung the production. Did they overestimate how much the rest of us knew about Marley? What I know is that I don't know.

Release info: In theaters February 14, 2024

Final score: 2 out of 5


barnestown said…
One of the weirdest things about his youth, is that as a kid, he lived in Delaware with his mom, who worked as a housekeeper. I cannot imagine a little Bob Marley in Delaware.