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The Perfect Movie Plot for Bob Marley’s Journey

Bob Marley: One Love begins with a word salad of explanatory title cards that explain Bob Marley’s early years and the beginnings of political violence in Jamaica, giving away some of the film’s plot points. The image provides us with a brief but essential glimpse of Marley’s career, spanning from the assassination attempt on his life in 1976 to the time he spent traveling in the wake of it, recording Exodus in London and embarking on a global tour that helped reggae music become a huge global sensation. However, the filmmakers are unable to stay true to their own idea. Despite their persistent efforts to provide historical background and glances, they ultimately end up with a lifeless biopic.

The most powerful scene in the movie appears quite early on, as Bob (Kingsley Ben-Adir) flees a vicious attempted murder and goes to the mountains outside of Kingston to decide whether to cancel his widely anticipated “Smile Jamaica” concert, which is scheduled to take place immediately before the nation’s elections. Nicknamed “the skipper” by his fellow Wailers, Bob spends the nighttime hours perched on a cliff, gazing down at the city below and the eerie light coming from the stadium where he will be performing. It’s a true event from Marley’s life; documentaries often feature such historical video, and it has the kind of casual poetry that the film needs a lot more of. It is obvious that Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director, and his co-writers Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, and Zach Baylin have done their homework in sorting through Marley’s life and selecting the most noteworthy moments to feature on screen. However, they have only successfully dramatized the topic in the most basic ways possible without managing the artistry. As a result, a shallow picture book featuring cutouts in place of humans is produced.

The movie shows flashbacks to Bob’s early years as he and the Wailers depart Jamaica for London to continue their soul-searching and record their next album. A young Bob is shown fleeing a blazing field while being chased by an enigmatic figure on a horse, who might or might not be the white father he never truly knew. We see his acceptance of the Rastafari religion and how it offered him a feeling of community. Every time the movie goes on, we find ourselves wanting more—not because the material is exciting, but rather because it’s so ambiguous. We’re interested in learning more about the Wailers’ early years because of a few of their early performances. Bob struck us as a very gifted but insecure youngster, and we wonder how he rose to the position of lead singer. There aren’t many answers in the movie.

One Love almost feels hesitant to linger too long with its characters for fear of revealing something about them that might be unpleasant or complex. Marley’s wife Rita (played by the wonderful Lashana Lynch, who gets a lot of screen time but not much more) is shot in the head during the assassination attempt. She quickly returns a few days later to attend his “Smile Jamaica” concert, which the real Rita did, very brilliantly. However, we notice virtually little sensitivity in their initial encounter. Is this a subliminal hint at their relationship’s transactional character, or are the filmmakers simply struggling to portray a complicated marriage? Rita has an obligatory meltdown at the end of the film when she reveals that she has been raising all of Bob’s children, even the children he had with other women. However, it’s merely lip service delivered with a narrative beat rather than offering any meaningful insight into this extraordinary woman’s life. No one has actually attempted to visualize any of these individuals in all of their full-blooded complexity. As is typical with hagiography, they are portrayed as gods with sporadic shortcomings.

Perhaps the production made an attempt at one time. We get very fleeting background glances of Cindy Breakspeare (Umi Myers), the Jamaican beauty queen Bob had a protracted relationship with, in London. She just gets one brief close-up and no actual conversation, though, as if the character weren’t included in the final cut of the film. This essentially reduces her to the status of a groupie and hanger-on, which is surprising for a woman who was a constant in Bob’s life and with whom he had a child. While it would be tempting to conclude that these and other relationships were given short shrift since the Marley family was involved in the production, that is probably not fair as other documentaries about Marley that were made in collaboration with his family have not shied away from these topics. (This includes the great and lengthy 2012 documentary Marley by Kevin Macdonald, which you might want to watch instead.) No, it appears like the filmmakers are trying to avoid showing Rita Marley, Bob Marley, and the others as real individuals who lived real lives and were part of the real world.

Thankfully, there are many nice music to choose from. At least the songs are good. Ben-Adir nearly captures the intensity of Marley’s gleefully shamanistic, transported whirling and hopping, and One Love comes alive in its musical moments. We might find ourselves wishing the movie had limited itself to recreating the 1978 One Love Peace show, the Exodus sessions, or Marley’s Smile Jamaica show after watching him perform and witnessing the band’s fluidity both onstage and in the studio. Marley used his music to tell his life story; his lyrics are honest, open, and surprisingly detailed. It may seem contradictory that his work has gained popularity over the globe, but that is precisely the purpose of great art. From listening to Marley’s songs, we get a fundamental understanding of him. But nevertheless, when we leave One Love, we know less about him than when we entered.

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