Bob Marley was born in 1945, the son of an 18-year-old mother and a much older white man who had nothing to do with his son. As a boy raised in poverty, he often slept on the cold ground. Five years after moving to Kingston’s Trench Town, he made his first record, at 17. Not 20 years later, he was dead.
By then, Marley had become the face of not just reggae, Rastafarianism and Jamaica, but of revolution, resistance and peace. He left behind a body of work that has only grown more monumental with time. “Redemption Song.” “No Woman No Cry.” “War.” “Trench Town Rock.” “Get Up Stand Up.” “Lively Up Yourself.” “One Love People Get Ready.” The Beatles could argue they were bigger than Jesus but no one thought — like some did Marley — that they were actually the Second Coming.
So, yeah, it’s a lot for a movie — any movie. “Bob Marley: One Love,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is a noble but uninspired attempt to capture some of the essence of Marley. Its lived-in textures and attention to Marley’s political consciousness, just by themselves, are enough to make “One Love” something more substantial than many recent, glossier music biopics.
But the power and complexity of Marley is still out of reach for “One Love,” which takes a typical biopic framework in plotting itself around the run-up to an important concert with flashbacks mixed in. When footage of the real Marley inevitably plays over the credits, it’s a painful comparison to the ruminative but inert movie that played before it.
The first thing you notice about the performance by Ben Kingsley-Adir, the talented British actor of “One Night in Miami…” and “Barbie,” is that he’s got the voice. His Marley has the growl and lilt of the singer’s resonant Jamaican accent. But what the performance is missing — an absence so clear when the real Marley turns up — is the physical dynamism and charismatic velocity of Marley.
The sheer vibrancy of Marley, who spent afternoons playing soccer and had at least 11 children in his short life, would undoubtedly be a tall order for most films. “One Love,” set in the aftermath of a 1976 shooting that wounded Marley, follows a more contemplative Marley in self-imposed exile in London — on tour in Europe, recording the 1977 album “Exodus” and ultimately receiving a diagnosis of cancer.
Marley was by many accounts a more private person than often remembered, so the rendering here is surely a genuine aspect of a man rife with contradictions. “One Love,” which lists four screenwriters and was made with Marley’s estate (Ziggy and Cedella Marley are producers), appears to have wrestled with finding a single portrait, and the movie’s patchwork pacing occasionally shows signs of that struggle.
But just as he showed in “King Richard,” Green is skilled at finding intimacy in the lives of larger-than-life figures. Early in “One Love,” Marley and his band assemble in a smoke-filled living room to play “I Shot the Sheriff,” and it’s moments like these that work far better than those in the public eye.
The performance that bookends the film is the One Love Peace Concert, which was put on in Jamaica in 1978 as a way to heal the divided, violent country. Marley, during “Jammin’,” brought the rival party leaders Edward Seaga and Michael Manley on stage.
The turmoil in Jamaica weighs heavily on Marley throughout film; images of fields aflame run repeatedly as a reflection of his memories. Though largely set in Europe, the real through line of the film is Marley as consumed with the plight of his countrymen, and others in similar situations around the world. When white executives push back against touring in Africa due to its lack of infrastructure, he replies, “So we build it.” How all of this percolates in Marley and gets filtered into the music is, ultimately, what “One Love” is about.
“The music and the message are the same thing,” Marley explains.
“One Love” is attuned to the communal aspect of Marley’s life — he rarely appears alone in the film — yet few other individuals come through vividly. The events of the film are years after the breakup of the Wailing Wailers so Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer are little seen. The most notable supporting roles go to Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley, his wife, and James Norton, as Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
Though “One Love” drifts into increasingly conventional biopic scenes, its spirit remains fairly true to Marley — enough, at least, that you overlook some of its faults. But what’s harder to forgive is the lackluster music performances peppered throughout. Ben-Adir doesn’t himself sing the songs but relies on Marley recordings — which is fine. Yet when Marley and company take the stage, Green sticks to largely drab coverage. Precisely when “One Love” should be, as Marley was, striving for transcendence, it feels like it’s going through the motions. Come on, you want to plead, and stir it up.
“Bob Marley: One Love,” a Paramount Pictures release is rated PG13 by the Motion Picture Association for marijuana use and smoking throughout, some violence and brief strong language. Running time: 107 minutes. Two stars out of four.