It’s testament to the brilliance of Kingsley Ben-Adir that it takes a matter of minutes in Bob Marley: One Love before you forget that you’re not watching the actual man who brought reggae to the wider world for the first time.
As he told Rolling Stone UK for our cover story last month, he went to great depths to immerse himself in Bob Marley’s movements, childhood and even his distinct Patois dialect.
“This is a foreign language film with no subtitles, so this challenge proved massively important. We needed to stay true to Bob and the culture because that language is the emotional through-line of the story for a universal audience,” he said.
True to Ben-Adir’s words, it’s a satisfying and faithful look at an integral chapter in Marley’s life, but you can’t escape the feeling that it sometimes fails to truly dig beneath the surface.
It starts with the assassination attempt that almost claimed Bob’s life in 1976 when Jamaica was on the brink of civil war. Despite playing a peace concert to bring unity between warring political parties just two days later, he fled to London for safety – and began work on what would become the seminal Exodus album.
In the hands of director Reinaldo Marcus-Green, it’s an interesting, if somewhat paint-by-numbers look at his time in the capital. This means a brief crossover with punk as he attends a gig by The Clash, idyllic shots of Bob playing football in the capital, and some highly enjoyable moments when Ben-Adir is in full flight as the musician in performance mode at his iconic Rainbow Theatre gigs.
But you can’t help shake the feeling that, at times, it all feels too close to the surface. Lashana Lynch is reliably brilliant as Marley’s tough wife Rita, but the pair’s relationship never feels fully realised – bar one scene when the pair have a brief fracas over each other’s supposed infidelities.
Similarly, it falls into biopic tropes all too often. There’s the obligatory disapproving record exec (Michael Gandolfini), who is forced to eat humble pie when the simple artwork of Exodus allows it to become one of the decade’s best selling albums. It’s also the case when dealing with the childhood trauma that Bob faced when rejected by his white father – all sepia soaked flashbacks and a never fully realised definition of just how much it affected the man himself, who, according to Ben-Adir often battled with PTSD.
Still, there’s much to love too. Robert Elswit’s cinematography effortlessly conveys the warmth and joy of Bob’s homeland, while the concert scenes are effortlessly executed. Similarly, it’s hard not to come away with a smile when the music – which defined a generation – is as good as this.
If you’re a Bob Marley devotee, it’s unlikely you’ll come away knowing anything new, but Ben-Adir’s towering performance will give you a newfound appreciation of the man himself.
For the rest of us, it’s a satisfying, if not life-changing look at the life of an icon whose music continues to live through to this day.