Few things mark the entry of a personality into the History of Music (capital S and M) like the arrival of a dedicated biopic. Not that Bob Marley hasn’t, rightfully, already entered the musical annals. After all, few have changed the course of history as he did. “Bob Marley: One Love” focuses in particular on trying to explain, to those who were not there and to those who do not remember, how its protagonist changed the historical trajectory of Jamaica with his reggae.
The film focuses on the most difficult years for Jamaica, divided between distinct political factions, on the brink of civil war. It starts with a concert that Bob Marley organizes as a relaxing and peaceful gesture, leading to the musical gathering that marks his return to his homeland. In closing, already aware that a rare form of melanoma is consuming him, Marley is a witness and supporter of the peace established between the two political contenders, in front of an immense crowd. In short, those recounted are not the early years, which we briefly retrace via flashback, but those of the more or less voluntary exodus, after the attack Bob escaped and the non-fatal wounding of his wife Rita, saved by the dreadlocks.
Bob Marley told during the “Exodus” years in London
It is a contemporary, very strategic choice. Starting from the post-attack and dwelling on his stay in London, “Bob Marley: One Love” can focus on the writing and recording of the LP “Exodus”. The screenplay can thus move into a more familiar and “safe” territory for the general international public of the complex African and Latin American geopolitical situation of the 1970s.
The film can trace a classic double narrative arc. The first trajectory chronicles the rise of popularity of Marley and the Wailers internationally, overlapping with the more classic arc of getting lost and then finding oneself in a foreign, Western, capitalist, tempting context built to monetize every aspect of musical art.
We are in the mid-70s, everything is political and politicized. As the film itself reminds us, for Marley reggae is music, music is the message and the message can only be political and spiritual. At this juncture, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film, although well intentioned, begins to demonstrate its limits. To talk about Bob Marley and his music we must necessarily go through his vision of the world and his Rastafarian beliefs.
Here a short circuit occurs, because the trio of screenwriters dealing with Marley’s biographical story are eternally undecided about how much they have to show and explain to us about it. The film therefore hits the ground running, showing us Bob and Rita in dialogue with their spiritual and religious references, taking it for granted that we already have a wealth of knowledge that doesn’t need explanations. Later, when the film has acquired a certain rhythm and is approaching its dramatic peaks, it is paused to explain – via flashback – what Rita and Bob were talking about without however ever giving an organic and convincing explanation.
To give an example: throughout the film Bob tells Rita, his children and his collaborators that Rastas were and are discriminated against in Jamaica. The dreadlocks for the hairstyle, the dreadlocks in the sense of followers of Rastafari? A bit of both, alternating. The connection between the two elements is barely hinted at, visually. However, it is not clear who discriminated against them, why, how much, and whether this information plays a role in the very tense political climate of the nation. As long as you don’t enter the room already having these notions very clear in your head.
On the other hand, “Bob Marley: One Love” doesn’t avoid politics just because it can’t. However, it is not its main focus; and even the music, which occupies an important part of the feature film, is central up to a certain point. Ten songs are quite a few to offer in a biopic that is not a musical, but somehow the impression is that they remain on the sidelines. “Jamming”, “I Shot the Sheriff” and “No Woman No Cry” seem to carve out a space for themselves because they cannot not be there, exactly like the spiritual and philosophical dimension of the protagonist.
The real focus of the film seems to be rather a reading, or perhaps a rereading of Bob Marley of those that can only arrive posthumously, in retrospect, when there is already a certain aura of secular sanctity around the character.
“Bob Marley: One Love” tells of a blurred Bob Marley, without chiaroscuro
In this sense “Bob Marley: One Love” is a film that more than anything else makes Marley enter the history of music. In that type of story in which the protagonists of musical biopics have lost their sharpest sides, their most controversial passages. Time, poor memory, the approach chosen by the entire operation aim to smooth out the rough edges, to enhance the positive aspects while retaining the negative ones just long enough to have a bit of vis dramatica for the construction of the story. There is no parable if after the rise there is not a fall, obviously followed by a reversal of trend and a vertical rise to the Olympus of the untouchables.
Not that anyone expected from “Bob Marley: One Love” the courage necessary to question in any way the character it portrays. Not everyone is Elton John who, despite closely following the production of the film “Rocketman”, left enough creative freedom and enough room for maneuver to the filmmakers to come up with a biographical film full of edges, not committed to praising and justifying it, and to this memorable one.
It’s difficult to be so incisive, difficult to question anything about Bob’s legacy when his son Ziggy is there to finance and produce the entire homage to his father’s memory. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green is almost a specialist in this sense. He is also the director of “King Richard”, a film produced by the Williams sisters to pay homage and praise a father figure with more than a few chiaroscuro points.
The limit of “Bob Marley: One Love” is the same: it moves too close to the man it describes to be more than a laudatory portrait of Bob Marley, his music and his story. Forty years after those events, the time is more than ripe to question what really remains of that music, of those messages, of that season. How much remains of his reggae within the icon of Marley, still recognizable today in the four corners of the globe. It’s still very popular, of course, but if reggae is the music and the music is the message, a biographical film that arrives like this could, perhaps should, ask itself about more uncomfortable and complex issues.
It has a certain effect, at the end of the film, to see archive images of the real Bob Marley, after following him for two hours with the features and movements of the actor Kingsley Ben-Adir. The instant impression that is difficult to shake off is that Kingsley Ben-Adir is too beautiful, too clean, too devoid of nuances to convey not so much a physical resemblance, but the strength of an elusive, complex character, who brings with him a “lost in translation” which is not easy, indeed, sometimes it is almost impossible to fill. The condemnation of “Bob Marley: One Love” is that it is an overly conventional film that tells the story of a figure far removed from convention, to which it would have been more appropriate to juxtapose a radically different film, radical and that’s it.