What Went Wrong With Bob Marley: One Love? | CBC News


Despite the fact that Bob Marley: One Love was, producer Ziggy Marley says, a labour of love, a slew of negative reviews and limp early box office numbers have already poured in. But how do you make a music biopic about someone who was, to many, far more than just a musician?

Reggae musician biopic hampered by slew of negative reviews

Jackson Weaver · CBC News

· Posted: Feb 14, 2024 4:00 AM EST | Last Updated: February 14

Bob Marley: One Love is the latest piece of media to reflect on the global reggae superstar. But a slew of negative reviews — citing a sort of hero worship the film exhibits — raises the question of how truthful a music biopic needs to be. (Chiabella James)Ziggy Marley’s movie is not receiving the love its name calls for.

Despite the fact that Bob Marley: One Love was, Ziggy says, a labour of love, a slew of negative reviews and limp early box office numbers have already poured in.

That biopic tells the story of his father, the legendary Jamaican reggae artist who helped to cement both the genre and the closely associated Rastafari religion in the public consciousness. And while Bob died over 40 years ago from melanoma, it took until 2018 for Ziggy and the Marley family to arrive at a time, and land on a script, that gave them a reason to tell his story.

“What we want to do is bring the audience inside of Bob world,” Ziggy said in an interview with CBC News ahead of the film’s premiere. “You don’t have to read it in a book or see it in an interview … they in on the inner circle now.”

He went on to say a line repeated in many interviews — that the purpose of making One Love was to share his father’s message of unity. A message of universal camaraderie that transformed him, and his wildly popular music, into an enduring symbol of social justice around the world. 

WATCH | Bob Marley: One Love trailer: 

“Bob’s music, his message, it’s what we grew up on,” director Reinaldo Marcus Green told CBC. “I think Ziggy said it best: ‘Bob wasn’t a perfect man, but he had a perfect purpose.’ I think that that’s what this film’s about.”

The way they went about that was to go through a specific period in Bob’s life with a fine-tooth comb. The film focuses on a few years near the end of the musician’s life, when he left a home country falling toward a possible civil war, and crafted Exodus — declared by Time magazine in 1999 to be the greatest album of the 20th century. 

It also included various members of the Marley family (who have since expanded the mythos surrounding Bob into a slew of products, documentaries and podcast appearances) advising on set — coaching British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir on everything from his accent, to how many steps Bob would typically skip when walking up the stairs.

Unfortunately for its creators, that hyper-attention to supposed accuracy did not translate to glowing critical reception, with nearly all the criticisms reflecting on the Christ-like depiction of its central star.

British actor Kinglsey Ben-Adir appears as Bob Marley in Bob Marley: One Love. (Chiabella James)”This is a reverent Hallmark Channel-type film made with the family’s co-operation,” reads a review from the Guardian. “There’s hardly a relative here without an associate producer credit — and of course it has all the musical rights.”

The Washington Post’s response had a similar gripe; complaining One Love contains “an effort to render Marley’s story in more messianic terms: His music, we’re told, was not just something to get high to … but a gospel-like message of unity, peace and love.”

And Variety puts it simply: “the Marley we see is close to a saint … One Love flirts with complexity but slides into the banality of hero worship.”

Heroic strategyIt was a familiar strategy to recent biopics Big George Foreman, Elvis and Maestro. Both Foreman and Elvis were films aided by their subjects or subjects’ families, and criticized for an overly simplistic and glowing depiction of their star that ignored complex, humanizing aspects to protect their legacy. 

For Foreman, it was an emphasis on the boxer’s born-again Christian life, and an under-representation of his self-hatred after losing to Muhammad Ali — as well as the years-in-the-desert selling George Foreman-branded grills. In Elvis, it was a “pack of lies” (according to The Telegraph) that sanded down controversial aspects of the performer’s life to avoid offending his fans (according to The Seattle Times) — indicative of a tradition in music biopics that, The New York Times’s Popcast argued, necessarily simplifies legendary musicians to turn them into main characters, and heroes. 

Maestro, meanwhile, was not made with official involvement of American conductor Leonard Bernstein’s estate. But as a New Yorker article pointed out, a movie that skipped out on large segments of the composer’s life both thanked his estate in the credits, and managed to include Bernstein’s music in its soundtrack. Not to mention Bernstein’s estate publicly defended Bradley Cooper in his decision to wear a prosthetic nose when playing Bernstein. 

LISTEN | Bob Marley: One Love director Reinaldo Marcus Green chats with CBC’s Q: 

Q53:59Reinaldo Marcus Green

“Bob Marley: One Love” is a new biopic about Bob Marley in the late ‘70s — a time when Jamaica was in political turmoil and Bob was conflicted about the direction of his music. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard, Joe Bell) is no stranger to dramatizing the stories of real-life people. He tells Tom what a feature film brings to Bob’s story that a documentary could never do, why he casted a non-Jamaican and non-musician to play Bob, and how being a high-level baseball pitcher set him up as a filmmaker.

That is very obviously contrasted against Priscilla; another movie about Elvis Presley that so obviously criticized the star, Presley’s estate refused to allow the use of any of his music. Its director, Sofia Coppola, was forced to substitute music by other contemporary artists and songs created for the movie whenever Presley performed — an obviously difficult task that studios try their best to avoid. 

Even in the crowded field of Bob Marley media already produced, many have met with — or been shut down by — similar issues. The 2012 documentary Marley saw both Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme depart as possible directors, with Demme citing “profound creative differences.” A contemporaneous Vulture article theorized “one assumes [producer Steve] Bing and the Marley family must be unwilling to compromise some very specific vision they have for the film.”

And an earlier Bob Marley biopic, that even boasted Marley’s widow Rita as executive producer, was held up when the Marley family refused to license any music to the production. At the time, Ziggy Marley said blocking access to his father’s music was because the Marley documentary, which he was working on at the time, was “the best way to represent our father’s life from his perspective.” 

“In the age of the studios, the bowdlerization of life stories was essentially a response to ongoing threats of censorship,” the New Yorker review explains, somewhat serendipitously — even as it argues against the lazy trend of criticizing biopics just for leaving things out. “Today, it’s the threat of controversy.”

More than a musicianBob Marley: One Love, with that unified family involvement, is stuffed with the musician’s many hits — and unlike Walk the Line, where the stars performed their own renditions of their musicians’ songs, Kingsley Ben-Adir opted to avoid singing almost entirely. Marley’s own voice is dubbed overtop, to even more clearly evoke and feature the film’s star.

It all seems like missteps that led to One Love’s negative critical reviews. But to many, that heroic and singular depiction was because Marley was more than just a musician.

“He wasn’t just a musician, you know, he was a revolutionary,” Donisha Prendergast, Marley’s grandchild, told CBC News. “We need to continue to persist in creating space for that to happen, and I think this film gives us a tool to be able to do that.”

Julian King agreed someone like Marley deserved a somewhat loftier treatment. As both founder of Canadian Reggae World and self-described reggae defender, he described Marley as more than a musician, but a major proponent of Black liberation, Rastafarianism and “upliftment of all people.”

Lashana Lynch, left, appears in her role of Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife. (Chiabella James)But still, depicting him as a saint may be going too far. King, who grew up in Jamaica, met Marley on multiple occasions. He said his uncle was a mentor to a young Marley who, despite his fame, would come around without any air of self-importance.

“Bob was just a regular, humble dude,” King said. “He was, well, he was world renowned, but you wouldn’t know it. He’d just be sitting there chilling. Just a very humble dude.”


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie and Laura Thompson

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