Bob Marley: One Love (Paramount, PG-13)

There’s always some amount of trepidation I have going into any biopic of any musician whom I hold in as high regard as I do Bob Marley. I’m always wondering: will this film get the emotion behind the music across, and will it feel like more than just pantomime? I think Bob Marley: One Love is certainly head-and-shoulders above any below-average biopic. However, because of its bizarrely short runtime and uneven structure, there are moments where a pantomime quality definitely comes to the fore, which leaves Marley’s iconic music to do some of the heavy lifting.

The performances of Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch are the film’s best qualities. Ben-Adir is perfectly cast as Marley, a quiet fire always coming through, appropriately cutting through a lot of noise. Lynch brings an unforgettable strength to Rita Marley, Bob’s wife. The two performers carry so much of this film on their shoulders, whether it’s exploring Rastafarianism, the politics surrounding Bob and his backup band, The Wailers, or the interpersonal politics of moving up in the world as Bob’s star begins to shine brighter and brighter. Unfortunately, Bob Marley: One Love’s major structural issue tends to flatten many of their best acting moments.

I actually like the framing of the film and the choice to focus in on this time period — Marley’s escape to England after an assassination attempt which miraculously claimed no lives. His two most politically important Jamaican concerts bookend the film’s story, with his initial cancer diagnosis, the making of the classic album Exodus, and a European tour in between. The main problem is that we keep flashing back to a teenage Bob (Quan-Dajai Henriques) as he finds romance with a teenage Rita (Nia Ashi) and begins his musical career. Like the rest of the film, nothing in these flashbacks is executed particularly poorly, it’s just that we’re already whizzing through this period of Marley’s adult life, and suddenly we’re whisked back in time only to be jolted forward again. Thus, the film rarely breathes. If anything, it’s like a theme-park version of Marley’s life, where we’re mostly just mentioning major events, but not really feeling them.

Why couldn’t we have had at least an extra half-hour? I’ve heard others describe this film as paint-by-numbers, but I think it would feel a lot less so if it gave itself and its actors the space and time to really dig deep into these iconic titans of reggae. A general audience will learn a little something about Bob Marley by watching One Love, but not nearly as much as they could have if it broadened its scope. Instead, either director Reinaldo Marcus Green or the studios behind the film seem intent on trying to fit a square peg — the enormity of Marley’s career and impact — into a round hole. I suspect there’s a lot left on the cutting room floor, particularly because there are several scenes where key parts of Bob and The Wailers’ history is mentioned, yet we never meet the people being referenced.

Though I can’t say I totally disliked this film overall, I would recommend Kevin Macdonald’s 2012 documentary Marley as a much better, more detailed overview of the man and his impact. Bob Marley: One Love is worth seeing for the performances, but Marley is worth seeing for the scope of information, which inherently leads to more emotional staying power. Bob Marley’s memory and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance deserved a masterpiece, but Bob Marley: One Love is mostly just okay. | George Napper

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