Bob Marley: One Love
MOVIE | Biopic of the Jamaican reggae star relies too much on a hackneyed formula and fictitious backstory
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Reinaldo Marcus Green isn’t a stranger to the genre of dramatic biopics. In Green’s King Richard (2021), Will Smith won an Academy Award for playing Richard Williams, the eccentric father of Venus and Serena Williams. In the new biopic Bob Marley: One Love, Green attempts to tell the story of the man who brought reggae music to the world.
British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir stars as Bob Marley, the peace-loving musician who finds himself in a continuous state of conflict. The movie opens in 1976 when, shortly before a planned concert, gunmen attack Marley, along with his friends and family, at his compound in Jamaica. Everything on the island has become politicized, even calls for love and acceptance. The bulk of the movie recounts Marley’s two years living in England, during which he kept recording and touring, leading to his becoming a global star.
Bob Marley: One Love contains some brief violence, but the film mostly earns its PG-13 rating for frequent depictions of marijuana smoking, a central practice of Marley’s Rastafarianism. Without passing judgment or getting too bogged down in exposition, the film illuminates this heterodox religion that looks to the Christian Bible for its authority but believes the messiah was a 20th-century Ethiopian king.
Green makes a bold choice by having the actors use some Jamaican Patois and leaving the speech untranslated. The dialect isn’t too thick, but some viewers might find as much as 20 percent of the dialogue unintelligible. And this attempt at verisimilitude seems at odds with Green’s relatively clichéd script that sticks to the worst kind of biopic formula.
The film begins with a dramatic event in the subject’s life. It cuts to a flashback of a traumatic childhood so we can see what he’s overcome. It shows scenes of hard work, even when the powers that be don’t quite understand the subject’s genius. We then get a scene in which the subject and his wife shout at each other in the street because success has caused them to lose sight of what’s important. The credits roll after an inspiring event meant to communicate everything’s going to be all right. We’ve seen this hackneyed sequence too many times.
Green shoehorns Marley’s life into this formula, and none of his emotional appeals feel earned. It’s especially disappointing to see a fictitious version of Marley’s early life created to make the story more relevant to our contemporary situation. The film invents conflict with Marley’s white father and depicts his mother abandoning him at a relatively young age. It’s as though Green suggests Marley embraces a black messiah to replace the white father who rejected him. It’s hard to take that kind of psychoanalysis seriously from a movie with such clumsy execution.
Biopics of musicians
- The Sound of Music / 1965
- Bound for Glory / 1976
- The Buddy Holly Story / 1978
- Coal Miner’s Daughter / 1980
- Amadeus / 1984
- La Bamba / 1987
- Selena / 1997
- Walk the Line / 2005
- I Can Only Imagine / 2018
- Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody / 2022