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'Bob Marley: One Love' is a heartfelt biopic about the celebrated reggae musician

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

"Bob Marley: One Love" - perfect title for a film opening on Valentine's Day, right? British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir stars as the reggae musician who became a worldwide cultural figure. Our critic, Bob Mondello, says the film is clearly heartfelt.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin in 1976, when Marley was already a superstar and, in a politically volatile Jamaica, a contentious one. Pulled over at a police checkpoint in a way that's scary for his kids, he deflects as they drive away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley, singing) Don't worry...

(LAUGHTER)

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley, singing) ...About a thing 'cause every little thing gonna be all right.

You like that one?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah.

MONDELLO: But onlookers scatter as he arrives home to go over plans for the weekend Smile Jamaica Concert with his manager.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) Where them running to?

ANTHONY WELSH: (As Don Taylor) They're scared. They've seen enough.

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) Scared of what?

WELSH: (As Don Taylor) Everything here is politicized, Bob. You do know I was called into the American ambassador's office?

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) Oh, yeah? And what them saying?

WELSH: (As Don Taylor) Apparently, I've been associating with someone who could destabilize the country.

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) What, me (laughter)?

MONDELLO: Marley's amused because the whole point of the concert is to stabilize the country. Just a few years after Jamaica gained its independence from Britain, he jogs past armored trucks and soldiers every morning. And still, he's all about peace and love and, yes, weed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) Reggae's a people music.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) People coming together.

MONDELLO: But others don't always hear that message. With warring gangs and political rivalries, it's hard for even this most laid-back of artists to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. That very day, two gunmen slip into his compound...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MONDELLO: ...Wounding him and almost killing his wife, Rita. The family leaves Jamaica. And in a London dominated by punk, where racism and rebellion seem to go hand in hand, Bob Marley and the Wailers create what Time magazine later called the best album of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXODUS")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) Oh, exodus.

MONDELLO: The creation of the "Exodus" LP, apparently despite the cluelessness of record executives, provides director Reinaldo Marcus Green with some of the film's sharper moments, as does Rita's growing frustration...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

LASHANA LYNCH: (As Rita Marley) Who really know ya? Who really care about ya, Bob?

MONDELLO: ...Especially with her husband's lackadaisical attitude about corruption among their associates.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

LYNCH: (As Rita Marley) You swim in pollution, you get polluted. We used to talk about this and everything else when you only had one shirt.

MONDELLO: Lashana Lynch's Rita Marley is as forceful as Kingsley Ben-Adir's Bob Marley is charismatic, but the storytelling often slackens, and the film's many flashbacks don't really pick up the slack, though there's a nice one where the still-adolescent Wailers wow producers with a brightly ska "Simmer Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMMER DOWN")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) Oh, simmer down. Oh, control your temper.

MONDELLO: Those peeks back do let us see how Rita and Bob got together as kids, both abandoned by parents, she leading him to the Rastafarian beliefs that shaped his life and lyrics. But after a while, the flashbacks also seem a dodge, short-circuiting any chance that the film will explore the connection between the peace and Pan-Africanism Marley championed and the recently post-colonial audiences who first embraced him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) There's a war going on. You can't separate the music and the message.

MONDELLO: But the film kind of does, possibly because this is the most authorized of authorized biopics. With several Marley relatives listed as producers, small wonder the singer comes across as saintly. Still, what audiences will come to "Bob Marley: One Love" for is the music, and when Ben-Adir is jerking his body to the rhythms and the band is jamming, the film's failures in storytelling will hardly be front of mind for anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Are you ready for Bob Marley and the Wailers?

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COULD YOU BE LOVED")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) Don't let them fool you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.