A Review of Bob Marley: One Love

A Review of Bob Marley: One Love

By: Alex Tilton

Before the film Bob Marley: One Love gets started, there’s a recorded bit from Bob’s son Ziggy who informs the audience that the Marley family was heavily involved with the film, and they’re very pleased with the results. This set off an alarm in my brain. Was this going to be a fair biography or a self-serving hagiography? It leans closer to hagiography, but it’s difficult to evaluate its quality as a film because it has no narrative focus. If someone asked me to tell them what’s the point that One Love is trying to make, I wouldn’t have an answer. I would also have trouble telling you what the central story is because the movie never focuses on any particular thread long enough to make it clear that this is the main one. But I can tell you what the story isn’t by discussing the things the movie doesn’t revolve around.

The movie doesn’t revolve around Marley’s rise to success. When the movie starts he’s already a superstar planning a peace concert

to address Jamaica’s violent political chaos. An attempt on the life of himself and his wife convinces him to leave Jamaica for England and work on the album that would become Exodus, which is where we spend the bulk of

the movie.

The movie also doesn’t revolve around creating the album. That’s just a thing that happens along the way. There’s no narrative tension associated with making the album. It’s important, but there’s no suggestion of dire consequences should it fail. They have an idea for a lead single, they record it and everything is fine. And while making the album Bob has conversations with various people aimed at taking his music to Africa where he feels it is needed.

But the movie doesn’t revolve around the Africa concert either. There’s a brief conversation with his business managers who tell him he has contractual obligations for a tour in the US and Europe. The next we hear anything about this is during the epilogue at the end of the movie. We don’t see any struggle to make that concert happen, and nothing in particular seems to be hinging on its success.

And One Love doesn’t revolve around Marley’s illness and death. That’s just another thing that happens. Toward the middle of the film, we see that Bob’s big toe is badly infected. His wife, and eventually others, tell him he needs to see a doctor. When he finally does, he’s told he has a rare type of skin cancer and decides to ignore the prescribed course of treatment.

The movie also doesn’t revolve around Marley’s religious reasons for refusing treatment, because this gets no discussion whatsoever. All that changes is that Marley decides to go back to Jamaica to do the concert now that he knows he’s dying. It feels like this is supposed to be the central story I’m looking for; Marley leaves Jamacia, pursues his career, is forced to confront his mortality, and returns to finish what he started. But since this thread doesn’t get any more screen time than any of the others it didn’t feel like it was there to anchor the audience.

Despite the frustrating lack of focus, I found many individual things about the movie to enjoy. Kingsly Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch did an excellent job as Marley and his wife Rita. The movie has tons of awesome Bob Marley music in it, so if you’re a fan you’ll be very happy there. And that’s the point, isn’t it? This movie is for fans; people who already know a lot about Bob Marley’s life and therefore won’t notice the lack of a central plot.

Although upon reflection I think I do know what point the movie wanted to make. The point of the movie is that Bob Marley’s estate had veto power over everything. There’s no discussion of Marley’s religious reasons for not following his doctor’s advice, nor is there any mention of his decision to use a quack alternative medicine diet instead of proven science-based treatment, and the fact that this decision killed him. Marley has at least five children from extramarital affairs, but this gets only one mention during a heated argument with his wife. Characters smoke weed constantly but, somehow, a movie about a deeply religious Rastafarian man contains no discussion about the religious use of marijuana. There’s also no exploration of Marley’s relationship with the warring faction leaders in Jamaica. And these omissions have serious consequences. They prevent the movie from becoming a coherent story, and it makes Bob Marley feel like less of a real human and more of an idea. It also strongly suggests that the Marley family isn’t comfortable confronting the less-than-wonderful aspects of his life.

In the end, I found the film both entertaining and very frustrating. I think I would have had a better time just sitting down and listening to one of his albums. But the movie gave me an excuse to use the word hagiography in a sentence, so I’ll take it.

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