Bob Marley: One Love review – are music biopics all style over substance?

Genre draws in critics and music fans, but whether filmmakers can satisfy both remains to be seen

Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Bob Marley alongside Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley in Bob Marley: One Love. Photo: Paramount Pictures
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Bob Marley: One Love is no one-of-a-kind. The cinema-shattering success of Bohemian Rhapsody back in 2018 had audiences flocking to see Queen perform on screen to the sum of $910.8 million at the worldwide box office. Next followed its enormous awards success.

Said success proved how popular these kinds of films can be, whether they lean on archival footage or go down the star-studded cast route. Since then, Elton John, Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston biopics have been brought to screens with the support of the subject or their families.

Bob Marley: One Love, starring Kingsley Ben-Adir as the lead singer of The Wailers, is the latest take on the cinematic trend. Its opening weekend box office eclipsed expectations, suggesting the biopic genre is in no danger of slowing down.

Like Bohemian Rhapsody, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and parts of Rocketman and Elvis, Bob Marley: One Love has no intention of breaking the artistic mould. Like its cinematic predecessors, it avoids deeply probing the psyche of its iconic protagonist and doesn’t threaten their legacy.

Instead, for 1 hour and 47 minutes, the audience gets to feel like they’re spending time with Bob Marley and his wife and backing vocalist Rita Marley (Lashana Lynch) and watch him create and perform some of the most incredible music ever made.

At times that’s undeniably enjoyable to watch unfold, even if you can’t help but wonder if some of the events really went down in the way depicted.

Ultimately, though, long periods and many parts of Bob Marley: One Love feel too sanitised and predictable, especially when it comes to its music cues. For example, when Bob and Rita argue, No Woman, No Cry starts to play.

Rather than focusing entirely on Bob Marley’s life and career and linearly unveiling his story, Bob Marley: One Love actually opens up in Jamaica in 1976. Political conflict is so rife in the country that it has begun to affect daily life for everyone, as crime and shootings take place in daylight in front of children.

Bob Marley: One Love

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch, James Norton

Rating: 2/5

Bob, at this point 31 years old and already one of the most popular musicians in Jamaican history, decides to hold a concert to promote peace and unity across the country, and bring the warring factions together.

But as he is preparing for it, Bob, Rita and several members of his band are shot by political protesters. After realising his presence is putting everyone close to him in jeopardy, he sends Rita and their children to the US and travels with the band to London.

Over the next few months, Bob contemplates how he can help his country from thousands of miles away. The result is Exodus, one of the most successful albums ever created.

Bob, Rita and the band tour Europe with their music and he aims to take the concerts to Africa, too. But he soon makes a shocking discovery that prompts him to return home, where he’s still unsure if he’s actually safe.

Bob Marley: One Love isn’t terrible. It’s just like every other recent music biopic. This is made all the more frustrating because Marley was such a complex, fascinating and ultimately hopeful man.

The script from Terence Winter, Frank E Flowers, Zach Baylin and Reinald Marcus Green, who also directs, is too focused on presenting him as a mythical and almost flawless figure.

This makes sense, considering how involved Marley’s family was in its creation, but it means Bob Marley: One Love always feels like it’s being held back, especially since there’s almost zero conflict for two thirds of the film.

Of course, the positive of having the family’s backing is that the film is full of great music and musical moments. It’s undeniably interesting and even cool to see the supposed creations of the songs.

Both Ben-Adir and Lynch are tremendous in their roles, while the use of Jamaican patois and the beautiful locations make the film more interesting and authentic to watch unfold.

But it’s all at surface level. It feels like you’re watching a Wikipedia entry come to life. Marley deserves so much better. Considering how much money the film looks set to make, it seems to be exactly what viewers want from the genre. For now, at least.

Because if music biopics don’t freshen up their act quickly, audience fatigue will surely soon set in.

Updated: February 26, 2024, 7:02 AM
Bob Marley: One Love

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lashana Lynch, James Norton

Rating: 2/5