‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Rushes Through a Key Moment in the Life of Reggae Legend Bob Marley

When turning the life of a famous music artist into film, there are always two major, inescapable challenges. One is finding the right story or narrative out of the life in question. The other is getting the right actor to pull off something beyond mere imitation. “Bob Marley: One Love” more than succeeds in the second category and its most engaging element is Kingsley Ben-Adir’s lead performance. Ben-Adir takes on the task of becoming a musician who not only pioneered reggae on a global scale and is Jamaica’s best-known artist, but has been turned into a whole brand. You don’t need to even know Marley’s songs in detail to recognize the face. The scope and intimacy required to crack the statue and turn Marley into a human subject is precisely what’s missing here.

The story is limited to the years of 1976 through 1978. Jamaica is a hotbed of political conflict between right-wing factions and leftists. Marley and his band, Bob Marley and the Wailers, plan to hold a peace concert to try and calm the unrest. Soon enough, gunmen enter the singer’s home and fire at the band, wounding Marley and his wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch). Despite wanting to help his country, it’s decided Marley and the band will relocate to London. There, under gloomy English skies, Marley processes his role as a public figure, the legacy of his half-white background and the power of his faith as a Rastafarian. Inspiration also begins to strike and the band starts putting together their classic album, “Exodus.” It will be designed as a grand gesture that could also pave the way for Marley to give bringing peace to Jamaica one more chance.

“One Love” doesn’t chart every stop in the Bob Marley journey, preferring to be a contained, slice of life portrait similar to John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is by My Side” about the early days of Jimi Hendrix. It’s a surprisingly brisk film at 1 hour and 47 minutes. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green previously made “King Richard,” the 2 hour and 25 minute opus about the training of Venus and Serena Williams. It had the breadth to help us comprehend how the two athletes were shaped by their driven father. “One Love” is a moody set of snippets, giving us snapshots of Marley as a charismatic, talented artist who hangs out with his band in exile, meandering and tinkering with new music. If you want the full, immersive portrait and sonic experience, the best film about Bob Marley probably remains Kevin Macdonald’s sprawling, acclaimed 2012 documentary, “Marley.” It encompasses everything about the artist from his upbringing to the evolution of reggae, and provides a clearer context for the Cold War politics that rattled post-colonial Jamaican society. 

Green’s approach is to lower the volume and take a rather moody tone when doing this snapshot of Marley. The most energy is found in flashbacks where we see a younger Marley and his first band, the Wailing Wailers, struggling to get noticed and grab a producer’s attention with a lively, hand-clapping “Simmer Down.” It’s the brief moments that really become about the music that work best, like when one of the Wailers puts on the soundtrack for the movie “Exodus” at Marley’s London home. The sweeping theme by Ernest Gold instantly gets everyone inspired to start putting together grander jams. There’s also a funny but insightful scene where record executives can’t comprehend why the singer insists on a simple album cover not featuring him or the band. The backstories of classic Marley songs like “Get Up, Stand Up” or “Could You Be Loved” are absent, with the former being used as a brief needle drop during the opening credits. “I Shot the Sheriff” gets played during a rehearsal, though the movie does nod at its political power. How the Wailers also fought to connect with Black American audiences, at a time when reggae is still a distant innovation, is absent. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir chews up the scenery and dominates the movie because he is the strongest element. He has the charisma and presence to convince us he’s an artist conflicted yet seeking transcendence. His Marley also has strong moments of genuine vulnerability, particularly when Rita reminds him of how many infidelities she has tolerated out of sheer devotion. In the Macdonald documentary the real Rita claims she was fine with it, since monogamy was seen as a western construct by their circle. This film imagines she couldn’t avoid feeling hurt, but doesn’t expand further on the relationship as a theme. Equally brisk is the exploration of Marley’s Rastafarianism. It is a faith with many intriguing, controversial aspects, including the group’s famous devotion to Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia who was seen as a messiah. A bit more attention is given to Marley’s origins as the illegitimate offspring of a British man who impregnated his working class mother. Marcus Green’s most memorable image is a recurring moment in Marley’s mind where he walks through a burning field and his father appears in silhouette on horseback.

Another reason for “One Love” having such a quick running time (by current big movie standards, anyway) is that it doesn’t fill many minutes with concert scenes. The few it does feature, including the culminating “One Love Peace Concert,” let Ben-Adir show off his impressive capacity to capture Marley’s stage energy, which combined feverish showmanship with a religious fervor. The eventual cancer that killed Marley, famously revealed through a toe injury he suffered while playing soccer, is also tossed in as a quick biographical note. Marley’s was indeed a short life since he died at 36. Still, it’s a small movie for the artist who made an epic album like “Exodus.” Small but showcasing some wonderful talent in its leads. Lashana Lynch is a great Rita Marley, never catering to her famous husband but being the band’s true backbone. James Norton eases into the role of Chris Blackwell, Marley’s producer and presented here as a typical movie version of a producer, always watching out for the big star. “Bob Marley: One Love” isn’t necessarily a misfire. It has so much promise we just wish it had more of everything.

Bob Marley: One Love” releases Feb. 14 in theaters nationwide.