Bob Marley: One Love does a major disservice to the story of a legendary artist and activist

2 out of 5 stars

Bob Marley: One Love sets out to celebrate the life and music of an icon whose message of love and unity resonates across generations. It had the potential to tell Bob’s inspiring journey of overcoming adversity and the genesis of his revolutionary music.

In collaboration with the Marley family, the production features Kingsley Ben-Adir as the legendary musician and Lashana Lynch as his wife, Rita Marley. While the casting appears strong, with Kingsley’s notable roles in Barbie and One Night in Miami… and Lashana’s contributions to The Marvels, No Time to Die and Captain Marvel, a closer look at the creative team reveals a more complex story.

Reinaldo Marcus Green, known for works like King Richard, Joe Bell and Monsters and Men, directs. Green seems like a perfect fit, with previous success in helming Black stories. The writing credits, however, might explain the film’s flaws. Terence Winter, renowned for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street, Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos is one of the first screenwriters listed and it looks as though he was hired to lay the groundwork for a potentially great, elevated film. But, the writing team doesn’t stop there. 

Other writing credits include Zach Baylin, who wrote Gran Turismo, Creed III and King Richard (cinematographer Robert Elswit also shot King Richard, making for a trinity of returning collaborators from that film). Then we have Frank E. Flowers, better known as a music video director who has worked with Cisco, Jessica Lowndes and Post Malone, and written a few screenplays including an episode of The Ropes (on which he also served as co-executive producer). Director Reinaldo Marcus Green himself is also listed as a screenwriter. While a long list of writers isn’t always a bad sign, in this case, what ends up on the screen is a movie that feels plagued by rewrites, leading to a film that is ultimately unfocused and without a strong point of view. 

While much of the production team worked on fantastic and successful films about the Black experience — including Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, known for their work on If Beale Street Could Talk, Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave and Selma — you can’t ignore the fact that the majority of the behind-the-scenes team is white. Frankly, it’s hard to see this film as anything but commercial exploitation. Bob Marley is treated as a product rather than as a human being. The film’s executive producers are the Bob Marley estate, Matt Solodky and Brad Pitt. Not unlike the recent production of Bohemian Rhapsody (unsurprisingly, Bob Marley: One Love shares a producer, Richard Hewitt, with that film), which painted a toothless, band-approved vision of Freddie Mercury. 

Any of the groundwork and research present in the film are overshadowed by a commercial agenda to make the most viable product instead of a well-crafted, poignant and engaging story. Instead of a grounded filmic experience, the movie becomes a cheap ad that seems intent on jamming in as many Bob Marley songs per minute as possible. The film opens and closes with Wikipedia-style text, setting the stage for what audiences really wanted to see and hear, starting the movie with exposition about his youth and the social climate and finishing with more exposition of what ends up happening, telling rather than showing, cutting every potential of immersing the audience in a genuine cinematic experience. We don’t get to see or feel the beginning or the end — we’re told all about it. 

The decision-makers, perhaps influenced by a desire to prioritize and showcase Marley’s iconic songs (and capitalize on the rights they possess), sacrificed the potential for a nuanced and more elevated, City of God-style film in favour of a soulless paint-by-numbers product like Bohemian Rhapsody.

The repetitive and formulaic integration of Marley’s songs into the film kills any of their impact. Every scene starts and finishes with a song, sometimes cutting to yet another forced reenactment of Marley creating or recording another track. Some scenes feature up to three songs: an iconic song used as a transition, one played diegetically within the scene and yet another song used to transition into the next scene. Everything is so mickey-moused that when Marley fights with his wife Rita, there’s a “No Woman No Cry” needle-drop, or when a character says something about redemption, we hear “Redemption Song.”

The film’s shortcomings are starkly evident in the treatment of pivotal moments, such as Marley’s youth, his relationship with Rita, his transformative Rastafarian rituals and the One Love Peace Concert. The Rastafarian rituals shown could have been used to evoke a pivotal moment of transcendence and change. This sequence, potentially initially crafted with care and depth, is reduced to mere snippets, overshadowed by a forced insertion of Marley’s music, making everything more like a long rhapsodic medley music video interrupted by sparse interjections of cinema.

I hate to talk about what movies could be instead of what they are, but even if this film was made using the biopic clichés of the rags to riches story, from a grounded point of view of a young Nesta Marley and Rita’s growth into legendary status, adding Ziggy Marley’s point of view as a son of a distant father, it would have been way more interesting than whatever it turned out to be. 

The only saving grace is Lashana Lynch’s portrayal of Rita Marley. Despite dull scenes and simple expository dialogue, Lynch manages to portray emotion and depth. The most exciting moments are the flashbacks of young Nesta Marley playing and recording with the Wailing Wailers and his relationship with Rita and her Rastafarian influence on Marley. This feels like the backbone of an initial draft with so much potential, but it’s cut short, once again, prioritizing Marley’s songs over the emotional engagement of those scenes.

Bob Marley: One Love is meant to be a celebration of an iconic, larger than life character, his music and its impact in the world. Instead, it becomes another cautionary tale about prioritizing commercial viability over a genuine connection, failing to deliver on any of its artistic potential. Save your money for real cinematic experiences that genuinely deserve it, like Dune: Part Two or Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, as this directionless piece of content, unfortunately, is nothing more than the joint forces of white Hollywood and the estate of a long time deceased Black man to create another transparent money grab masquerading as a real film. ■

Bob Marley: One Love (directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green)

Bob Marley: One Love opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

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