April 30, 2024

“Bob Marley: One Love”: An Imperfect Tribute to the Reggae Revolutionary

By: Justin Tucker

Robert Nesta Marley is one of the great folk heroes of the Western Hemisphere along with George Washington, Simon Bolivar, and Geronimo. He and his group, Bob Marley and the Wailers, popularized the reggae music of his native Jamaica. His groovy, positive songs proclaimed a message of love and unity. His popularity is such that grandmothers, head shop proprietors, and politicians are fans of his music. The wide-ranging acclaim is a testament to the transcendence Marley, who died of cancer in 1981, hoped his songs could attain.

More than forty years after his death, his Hollywood biopic has finally arrived with Bob Marley: One Love. The film is a family affair featuring his widow, Rita, and children, Ziggy and Cedella, serving as producers. Despite this, the producers are unafraid to let Kingsley Ben-Adir portray several facets of Marley’s persona, including as a flawed family man. Fresh off appearances in the 2023 Marvel miniseries Secret Invasion, the cool Ben-Adir also portrays Marley as a mystic and revolutionary.

The film is mostly set between the years of 1976 and 1978, a turbulent time in Jamaica. During this period, Marley survives an assassination attempt ahead of his performance at the Smile Jamaica Concert, travels to London where he records his breakthrough album “Exodus,” is thrust into international fame, and returns to the powder keg of Jamaica as he is battling skin cancer. He makes music his weapon for peace, hoping it can unite his nation. That is his means to battle the division and unrest that plague Jamaica.

We are also shown glimpses of his early life. As a boy, he is rejected by his white father. He learns to play guitar and embarks on his early career. He also finds meaning and purpose within the Rastafari movement, which informs his views on peace and the liberation of African people throughout the world.

The music is the most magnificent aspect of Bob Marley: One Love. Hit after crunchy hit is on parade. The soundtrack was released on Marley’s own Tuff Gong label and will certainly be devoured by dedicated fans of Skip, who are as rabid as any Deadhead, Parrothead, or Juggalo.

Ben-Adir, though he nails Marley’s look, speech, and mannerisms, plays our hero a bit too carefree. The airy performance causes him to float above much of the conflict present in the story. Marley, the character, wants peace in his country but also without any positive political suggestion, perhaps naively. The strained interpersonal relationships, whether it be marital problems or business disagreements, do not make for compelling drama. Why should the audience care when Marley seemingly does not care either? It is as if life’s problems can be resolved by smoking ganja, kicking around the soccer ball, or jamming with the band.

The film could have also better explained Rastafari and pan-Africanism, which would have provided better depth for the Marley character. Audiences are instead given a rudimentary exposition of the religion Marley famously proselytized. We are told little of Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian ruler seen as an incarnate of Jah, or of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican activist and entrepreneur who also influenced the American civil rights movement. Had I not already studied Rastafari in high school, I may have not noticed what little was put forth.

As a whole, Bob Marley: One Love leaves a lot to be desired. Or, at least, that is what I initially thought. My mind, however, changed.

As I was about to write the above observations down, I thought about how extraordinary an individual the real Marley was. I also thought of his music. I thought particularly of the song “Exodus” and its command to “Move!” I thought about his ability to unite the leaders of two bitterly opposed factions in hopes of peace. These thoughts emotionally stirred me, and my eyes swelled with euphoric tears. The film’s point is not to be the greatest or most sophisticated movie biography of time. It serves to introduce his legacy to a new generation and remind the initiated about how sublime and moving his music is. If that was the film’s purpose, then Bob Marley: One Love certainly works. Or maybe it is just the ganja.