/ 24 February 2024

Bob Marley biopic: Less legend, more human

Bob Marley Performs Onstage
Bob Marley performs onstage at the Uptown Theater, Chicago, Illinois, November 14, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The East Rand Rastas taught me a lesson that Sunday afternoon — late-era popular Bob Marley tunes do not appeal to their discerning reggae audience. 

It happened about 14 years ago when I was playing my first reggae DJ session in Vosloorus. The selektah version of an instant death ensued as I almost cleared the hazy street party with Could You Be Loved

“‘For Jah’s sake!” I thought, as I scrambled to find a rootsy song to mix into, ‘It’s Saint Bob, the superstar musician who is reggae!’”

Luckily, the reggae community there consists of the most generous people and I have been welcomed back numerous times since. I even have my own DJ name in Vosloo and Katlehong: “Ntate Charles”. 

It must be because I rather quickly learned that conscious roots and dub reggae work but, at all costs, avoid Marley’s music after he and the Wailers signed to the UK-based Island Records in 1972. 

That is when he started crossing over to the rock crowd and eventually became an international superstar. A big no-no for reggae snobs.

But I have always been a Marley fan, especially of the early Lee “Scratch” Perry-produced stuff. So, last week I was there on time for the first screening on the opening day of the new musical biopic Bob Marley: One Love

But I was soon reminded of that first dry-mouth session back in Vosloo. One Love’s soundtrack will most certainly not be one to pack for my next East Rand set, I thought with a smile, as all those earworm-inducing massive hits — the likes of One Love, Three Little Birds and Redemption Song — blasted out of the cinema speakers. 

Bob Marley New2
Soul rebel: Bob Marley and the Wailers in the English city of Birmingham. (Ian Dickson/Getty Images)

The movie had access to all Marley’s music, its soundtrack basically a greatest hits collection — it also overlaps substantially with the 1984 best-of compilation Legend, which has sold over 25 million copies globally. The cynic in me continues to hear ka-chinging cash registers drowning out Marley’s lesser-known, but brilliant, songs.

Talking of dollars, as AFP reported, Bob Marley: One Love “enjoyed the adoration of North American theatre-goers this weekend, topping the box office with estimated earnings of $27.7 million”.

The film stars three English actors: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Marley, Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley and James Norton as Chris Blackwell, the Island Records boss. 

One doesn’t know what happened behind the scenes but director Reinaldo Marcus Green probably had two main choices: do a cradle-to-the-grave take on Marley’s fascinating life or focus on a dramatic excerpt of that short life. 

He went for the latter — his rise to global fame in the late 1970s to his death in 1981, when he succumbed to a rare skin cancer aged just 36. 

The spotlight is mainly on the making of the 1978 massive-selling album Exodus, which firmly crossed him over beyond reggae audiences.

Unfortunately, this biopic feels like a cinema-version of the aforementioned Legend

Slate’s respected music critic, Jack Hamilton, writes: “Legend is a fine little collection, but the idea that it’s some sort of one-stop synopsis of Marley’s career is absurd. For starters, 10 of its 14 tracks date from the period of 1977–80, a four-year time frame that represents the height of Marley’s global popularity but is a relatively minuscule cross section of a staggeringly prolific, nearly two-decade-long recording career.”

And, importantly, he adds: “Five of Exodus’ 10 tracks are included on Legend, which I suspect is one reason that One Love is so invested in the album’s significance.”

But my regrets about One Love were not only about the music —most of which is great, even though one has heard it too much. The film suffers from what biopics do when they try to tell the story of an iconic figure whose life is well known — its dramatic arc is predictable. 

We know how it is going to end. So, it is up to the scriptwriter and director to make sure the story-telling and cinematic exposition are exceptional, surprising and actually dramatic.

Just because Marley had a mesmerising life, doesn’t mean every little thing will be alright.

It is also Marley family-approved, with Bob’s son Ziggy its producer. 

One Love feels sanitised, like the image on the T-shirts and posters we encounter everywhere. Like all of us, Marley had flaws, including several extramarital relationships, even though he remained married to Rita until the end.

The most we see in One Love are brief flashes of Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World in 1976, who is the mother of reggae musician Damian Marley, through her relationship with Bob. He wrote his famous love song Turn the Lights Down Low for the Canadian-Jamaican.

And if you look away to your popcorn you will miss the snippet of Bianca Jagger, another of Marley’s girlfriends. And how about Marley’s controversial relationship with Pascaline, the daughter of the notorious Gabonese dictator Omar Bongo?

It is not a Bob the Philanderer movie I’m after, but more human, less messiah. It’s all the hits, and none of the misses, and very little of the misses.

At least there is the dramatic encounter after a show between Bob and Rita where she reminds him of “things we talked about when you only had one shirt”. But there is too little of Marley the revolutionary, which makes his music so universal and relevant to this day.

The film does start with the Smile concert, which Marley did to promote peace among warring factions of the two main political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party.

He then leaves for London, after surviving an assassination attempt, which is where Exodus was created. 

The movie shows how Marley and the Wailers played football, smoked dope, had unconvincing eureka moments that turned into song lyrics, smoked dope, went to a concert by left-wing punk rockers The Clash (attended by some right-wing neo-Nazi knobheads — surely not at an anti-fascist band like Joe Strummer and co?), smoked dope, recorded the album, smoked dope and so on.

In the one studio scene, Bob and the Wailers get introduced to Junior Marvin, a black English guitarist, who tries to impress them with his rock licks. In the end, that’s what goes on the popular Exodus record, which is what many rock fans bought, in both senses of the word.

But the “rockification” started earlier. Lloyd Bradley tells this anecdote in his brilliant history of reggae Bass Culture about Wailers bassist Ashton “Family Man” Barrett. Just signed to Island Records, the band recorded the album Catch a Fire at the end of 1972 in Kingston, “but extensively tinkered around in London”. 

Britain’s black reggae fans ignored it because they simply didn’t like it. The band wasn’t impressed either. 

Bob Marley Performs At Zimbabwe Independence
Bob Marley and the Wailers performing at Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in 1980. (William Campbell/Getty Images)

Bradley writes how Barrett chuckled as he recalled the others’ reaction when they heard the UK-finished album — he maintains their somewhat resentful view was shared by Marley back in Jamaica: “We jus’ laugh. We say to each other, ‘Bwoy, sooner or later those producers gon’ sing and play for themselves and won’t even need us.’”

On Monday afternoon I went to watch the movie again, hoping One Love would look less two- and more three-dimensional. I joked with the usher that he should have handed out some dagga because my expectations were not that high.

But there were some elements that made One Love worth seeing. Both Ben-Adir and Lynch were compelling in their roles. Lynch filled the  screen and Ben-Adir’s careful study of Bob’s speech, mannerisms and dancing were convincing.

Watching the street scenes took me to 1970s London and Kingston. 

Because the actors looked as if they were actual musicians, it felt one was in the studios and on stages with them.

The highlight (pun intended) was one minute long in the film — a 1963 flashback to a 16-year-old Marley and the Wailers going to Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One in downtown Kingston to convince him to sign them. They start off with a soul number and the hard-to-please producer walks away.

Next they launch into the uplifting ska song Simmer Down — a message to the “rude boys” to cool their violence. Dodd slowly turns around and a smile spreads across his face. In the control room, the eccentric engineer Perry, is bouncing on all fours on the control desk. 

So much joy, and so much talent. Big man Dodd knew he had to record it. In February 1964, it was number one on the Jamaican hit parade.

But, in the end, there were not enough kicks for me. The film ends with two parts from Marley’s illustrious career that went beyond his musical brilliance. Both with actual footage. The first is of the One Love Concert in 1978, where Marley managed to get the political rivals leading the People’s National Party, Michael Manley, and the Jamaica Labour Party, Edward Seaga, together on stage to literally join hands.

The second was of Marley and his band performing in Zimbabwe to celebrate  independence in 1980.

Now, if those two historic events and Marley’s involvement had been the focus of the movie, I would have been jamming.