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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Bob Marley: One Love’ review: Mostly positive vibes

By Amy Nicholson

Bob Marley was an enigma, a fascinatingly flawed idealist as most interesting figures are. Born into poverty in Nine Mile, Jamaica, the young Marley had weak singing pipes but a stubborn drive to be heard. He forged himself into the voice of his island and beyond, belting reggae anthems that have become hymnals to the world’s downtrodden, as well as anyone who likes a good groove. He died in 1981 at the age of 36 before he had to witness his legacy undergo a tough cross-examination. Did Marley’s generosity to strangers balance out his dismissal of women? Did his own painful childhood pardon him for being a distant father? Did his sincere proclamations of peace and unity accomplish anything — and is it fair of us to expect that they should?

Such grappling is justified, although it wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s patchy and unsatisfying biopic “Bob Marley: One Love” doesn’t even try. It lauds the Marley of dormitory posters, a snapshot of a lifestyle hero who is always the coolest guy in the room. At most, the movie takes his image from flat to lenticular. If you never got to see Marley move, Kingsley Ben-Adir is a fine simulacrum.

The problem is the script, credited to Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and Green. Smartly, the writers avoid the standard birth-to-grave template to focus on two years in London, where Marley, a pacifist, survived a surge in election-year violence, even when gunmen shot up his house, injuring him and three others. But the film doesn’t have much to say about his time in exile. Was Marley feeling betrayed by his country? Was he homesick? How was he handling his ascension to international superstardom? When Marley and his buddies from the Wailers (who are presented as a doting throng, not as individuals) check out the Clash, we can’t even tell if they’re having fun. (For the curious, the real Marley vibed with punk rock, saying, “Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas.”)

Occasionally, we see random flashbacks. The best involve Marley’s relationship with Rita, his wife and backup singer, who is played as a teen by Nia Ashi and in adulthood by a compelling Lashana Lynch, before their outside dalliances reroute their marriage into what’s portrayed on-screen as a chaste, tender loyalty. The rest are missed opportunities for insight into the man.

According to personal accounts in Roger Steffen’s first-rate biography “So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley,” the singer’s mother was uncomfortable that her son was half-white and, when she remarried, made the boy sleep underneath the house apart from her new family; here, she’s merely a blurry figure cradling young Marley to her bosom.

Instead, confoundingly, we’re given scenes about how Marley was totally right to insist on a minimalist album cover for “Exodus.” We also see the title track come together with Marley improvising lyrics while the other Wailers pound bongos and clank spoons against teacups. It’s a neat party trick, but there’s no enlightenment into his songcraft.

Yet, Ben-Adir, who was excellent as Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami,” taps into Marley’s essence. His first close-up comes as Marley is assaulted by flashbulbs. A reporter asks, “Do you really believe music can unify?” Eyes downcast, face filling the screen, Ben-Adir barely moves. He’s showing us an artist grounded by his quiet certainty of purpose, a man fueled by his resolute sense of self. In his concert scenes, Ben-Adir shuts his eyes just as Marley used to do, bouncing to his own beat with one hand held high like a charismatic preacher. His magnetism is the inverse of his contemporaries David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger who seduced the crowd below. Marley makes the crowd yearn to force a connection with him, to be inside that self-sufficient bliss.

If the movie succeeds at anything, it’s in capturing Marley’s lingering spell on fans. The wall-to-wall music makes you want to crank him up even louder on the way home. As “Get Up, Stand Up” blares, Green unspools a montage of Marley’s average day: morning jogs with his mates, afternoons noodling on the guitar, a soccer break, nearly always with a joint somewhere in the shot. It’s a teenager’s dream life. Who wouldn’t revere the adult who pulled it off?

What we don’t see are his failings, particularly the extramarital relationships. The former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare (Umi Myers), the most public of Marley’s other women and the mother of one of his children, sits in his studio unspeaking, unacknowledged and quite literally out of focus. Only through Lynch’s spine-deep performance as Rita do we see the complexity of loving a man who was harder to like the more you knew (or needed) him. Rita is the only character who pokes at Marley’s beatific image, forcing him to acknowledge the magical thinking that would ultimately lead to his early death.

After one brutal fight, Marley dances behind Rita onstage during “No Woman, No Cry” and puts a hand on her shoulder as if to nudge her forgiveness in front of the audience. The stoicism on Lynch’s face as she sings — and obeys — her husband’s plea to shed no tears is a staggering mix of irony, cruelty and acceptance. If “One Love” had a dozen more scenes with that power, it would be a worthy tribute to the icon and the man.

‘Bob Marley: One Love’: Rated PG-13 for brief language and violence and cumulus clouds of ganja. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.

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