‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Review: Mostly Positive Vibes

Bob Marley was an enigma, a fascinatingly flawed idealist as most interesting figures are. Born into poverty in Nine Mile, Jamaica, the young Marley had weak singing pipes but a stubborn drive to be heard. He forged himself into the voice of his island and beyond, belting reggae anthems that have become hymnals to the world’s downtrodden, as well as anyone who likes a good groove. He died in 1981 at the age of 36 before he had to witness his legacy undergo a tough cross-examination. Did Marley’s generosity to strangers balance out his dismissal of women? Did his own painful childhood pardon him for being a distant father? Did his sincere proclamations of peace and unity accomplish anything — and is it fair of us to expect that they should?

Such grappling is justified, although it wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s patchy and unsatisfying biopic “Bob Marley: One Love” doesn’t even try. It lauds the Marley of dormitory posters, a snapshot of a lifestyle hero who is always the coolest guy in the room. At most, the movie takes his image from flat to lenticular. If you never got to see Marley move, Kingsley Ben-Adir is a fine simulacrum.

The problem is the script, credited to Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and Green. Smartly, the writers avoid the standard birth-to-grave template to focus on two years in London, where Marley, a pacifist, survived a surge in election-year violence, even when gunmen shot up his house, injuring him and three others. But the film doesn’t have much to say about his time in exile. Was Marley feeling betrayed by his country? Was he homesick? How was he handling his ascension to international superstardom? When Marley and his buddies from the Wailers (who are presented as a doting throng, not as individuals) check out the Clash, we can’t even tell if they’re having fun. (For the curious, the real Marley vibed with punk rock, saying, “Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas.”)

Occasionally, we see random flashbacks. The best involve Marley’s relationship with Rita, his wife and backup singer, who is played as a teen by Nia Ashi and in adulthood by a compelling Lashana Lynch, before their outside dalliances reroute their marriage into what’s portrayed onscreen as a chaste, tender loyalty. The rest are missed opportunities for insight into the man.

According to personal accounts in Roger Steffen’s first-rate biography “So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley,” the singer’s mother was uncomfortable that her son was half-white and, when she remarried, made the boy sleep underneath the house apart from her new family; here, she’s merely a blurry figure cradling young Marley to her bosom.

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