Review | Bob Marley biopic turns a complicated subject into the Messiah

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“Bob Marley: One Love” is bookended by two concerts, in 1976 and 1978, both intended to foster peace in a Jamaica that had long been polarized by political violence. Such a narrow time frame for this story of the reggae pioneer, who died in 1981 at the age of 36 from skin cancer, is unusual. Most doomed-pop-musician biopics follow the trajectory of self-invention over a longer span (see “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which introduced us to Freddie Mercury as an aspiring pop singer, born Farrokh Bulsara, still living with his parents).

We don’t meet Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Marley until the age of 31, during preparations for the Smile Jamaica concert, meant to protest violence between members of the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party. These preparations are interrupted by an assassination attempt at Marley’s home that leaves the singer, his wife Rita (Lashana Lynch) and his band’s manager seriously injured. This precipitates a self-imposed exile in England, where the rest of the film largely takes place, other than scattered flashbacks to Marley’s childhood and his youth and courtship with Rita (played as a young woman by Nia Ashi).

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green, who co-wrote the screenplay with Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers and Zach Baylin, has constructed a work that suffers from the same tunnel vision as other movies of this ilk. We watch Marley, in a London full of Clash fans, search for — and find — a new musical direction: a fusion of laid-back island reggae, rock, blues and soul, with a healthy dose of political awareness, exemplified by the 1977 album “Exodus,” often cited as one of the best records of all time.

But there’s also an effort to render Marley’s story in more messianic terms: His music, we’re told, was not just something to get high to — there’s lots of the “holy herb of Rasta” being passed around here — but a gospellike message of unity, peace and love. Later, Rita tells Marley, with heavy-handed significance, that “sometimes the messenger has to become the message.”

Although the British Ben-Adir does a fine job of capturing Marley’s kinetic stage presence and mesmerizing personality, he’s a little too movie-star handsome, too glamorous and gym-pumped, to ever be entirely believable as the scrawny, slightly ragged-around-the-edges singer. He’s got the Jamaican patois down, at times so well that the movie could have used subtitles. But when the actor, whose speaking voice has a lower register than Marley’s, opens his mouth to sing, what comes out — an uncanny, computer-blended composite of Marley’s slightly raspy, weed-smoked tenor and the actor’s vocals — doesn’t seem to be emanating from the person on-screen. It’s disconcerting, less convincing than Will Smith’s all-consuming performance in Green’s fact-based “King Richard,” about the father/coach of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

Eventually, you do get used to the cognitive dissonance.

Marley’s legacy also isn’t helped by several mystifyingly dull scenes, including a protracted one centering on the design and typography of the “Exodus” cover. It’s not the only yawn-inducing thing. Green repeatedly returns to a pretentious, dreamlike sequence that features Marley as a boy, against a backdrop of burning crops, with an unidentified figure on horseback who seems to morph over the course of the film from Marley’s father, a White Englishman who abandoned his son as a child, to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie, a central figure in Marley’s Rastafarian religion, is sometimes considered to represent the second coming of Jesus.

In the end, that mantle is laid squarely on Marley’s shoulders, in a film that presents its hero as a flawed but well-intentioned martyr to Jamaican unity, world peace and a kind of generic, marijuana-infused sense of forgiveness. A perfunctory scene shows Rita berating her husband for infidelity and other sins, including rampant egotism. Yet her words hardly tarnish the overwhelming sense of hagiography. (“One Love” was produced by Marley’s widow, as well as his son and daughter-in-law, Ziggy and Orly Marley.)

In 1978, after being diagnosed with cancer, Marley returns from England like an outcast prophet to perform in the One Love concert in Kingston, a kind of musical peace conference organized to unite warring rivals Michael Manley of the PNP and Edward Seaga of the JLP, whose hands we see the real Marley joining in archival footage that runs just before the film’s closing credits. It’s a genuinely sweet moment in a film that’s otherwise a little too saccharine for its own good.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains marijuana use and smoking throughout, some violence, and brief strong language. 107 minutes.



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