Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch shine in a conventional music biopic straining to be something more. Here’s our Bob Marley: One Love review.
Bob Marley, much like Elvis before him, is one of those stars who would have received the biopic treatment by now if everyone wasn’t terrified of getting him wrong. Marley had a look, a sound and a cultural imprint that seem both global and cross-generational. It seems like anyone born since 1976 has come out of the womb with some idea of who he was lingering around in their head. For any actor looking to portray his life on screen, that becomes a difficult hurdle to overcome.
Thankfully for One Love, Kingsley Ben-Adir proves more than up for the task. Any fears of accent-inflicted cringe introduced by previews of the film are put to bed more or less in the first 20 minutes. These are also, by some margin, the most interesting minutes of a film which seems to lose confidence and energy as it goes on.
Opening in 1976, Marley’s hometown of Kingston seems set to explode. In two days Jamaica’s biggest star is set to front ‘Smile Jamaica’ – a free concert organised by Prime Minister Michael Manley to ease tensions between two warring political factions. Many in his entourage, worried by the potential for things to get out of hand, reckon this is a very bad idea.
Ben-Adir really shines here. While he goes some way to affecting Marley’s mannerisms, his performance goes far beyond a simple impersonation. Behind a furrowed brow and fearful eyes we get the sense that Marley is a man not quite out of his depth, but one thrown into a situation and with a responsibility he never wanted nor asked for. This first act plays out largely like a political thriller, and its high-wire tension and the contrast between the tinderbox situation on the streets with Marley and the Wailers in the rehearsal room is properly compelling stuff.
Bob Marley fans will know what happens next. To cut a really well-executed sequence short, Marley soon finds himself on a plane to London, where he’ll spend much of the next two years in self-enforced isolation from the eyes of the world. On arrival, violent clashes between rioters and police hint at a world on the verge of collapse even on the other side of the globe.
But One Love’s political aspirations don’t last long. As Marley mooches around London preparing to release his masterpiece – 1977’s Exodus – into the world, the film’s interest in the context the album was written in seems to fade away. Occasionally, Bob or his wife, Rita (played by a similarly exceptional Lashana Lynch) will turn on the television to remind us of the fraught situation they’ve escaped from, but on the whole the film settles into a much more conventional origin story of an iconic record.
All the usual culprits are there: confrontations with the label about the album art, the apparently spontaneous creation of an iconic song with Marley sitting round a campfire, a few live performances. Everything remains impeccably played, and Lynch and Ben-Adir’s chemistry and confrontation means there’s still plenty to keep us invested once all the politics are firmly in the rear-view mirror.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that One Love could have been so much more than a standard biopic. Those first 20 minutes or so might show the film at its best, but their memory serves as a reminder of the film we could have gotten. Instead, as One Love reaches its final act, the political pins it set up so well are resolved with a few lengthy paragraphs and archive footage of the real Marley in action. All the pieces are there for a compelling and original 70s thriller – it’s a shame half of them never made it out of rehearsal.
Bob Marley: One Life is in UK cinemas on 14th February