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‘Bob Marley: One Love’ opens the door to a wider audience for his vision and music

‘Bob Marley: One Love’ opens the door to a wider audience for his vision and music
'Bob Marley: One Love' is a film directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Photograph: Courtesy of Paramount)

After successful biopics about Freddy Mercury, Elton John, Billie Holiday and Elvis, to name a few, a film about the life of Bob Marley was sure to come. ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ hit movie screens around the world on 14 February 2024 and, despite some critical responses, has exceeded expectations, already grossing more than $177-million at box offices worldwide.

Musical biopics are growing in popularity – and profitability. Nevertheless it takes a brave director (in this case Reinaldo Marcus Green) and an even braver lead actor (Kingsley Ben-Adir) to try to bring Robert Nesta (Bob) Marley back to life. 

Because Bob was far larger than life. His mannerisms, his dreads, his unique lilt and dancing steps, 13 studio albums and global anthems like Get up, Stand Up combine to make making a Marley biopic an Everest to climb.

You could say their task was made easier by the fact that One Love is produced by Tuff Gong Pictures, one of the offshoots of Marley’s record label, and assisted by prominent members of the Marley family; his wife Rita and two of his sons, Stephen and Ziggy, acted as producers.

On the flipside, one of the criticisms of the film is that its producers were too close to the whirlwind that was Bob, to take a more detached, political view of his life and work. Thus, picking holes in the film, questioning the authenticity of its portrayal of Marley, was the tenor of some of the first critical responses penned shortly after the film’s release: Bob Marley: One Love review – reverential biopic of reggae superstar struggles to stir it up | Movies | The Guardian and Bob Marley: One Love Is a Feel-Good Fake.

My sense is that if Bob’s youngest son, Damian (“Junior Gong”) Marley, had been a producer we might have ended up with a more gritty, granular and political film. 

Damian is the son of Bob and Cindy Brakespeare, and his catalogue of political and protest songs – Make it Bun Den, Welcome to Jam Rock, The Struggle Discontinues – arguably make him the family member who best carries forward Bob’s political and musical legacy. Damian’s public silence about the film might hint at some discord among the Marleys about how to portray Bob. 

(L-R) British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, Jamaican producer Ziggy Marley and US director Reinaldo Marcus Green attend the France Premiere of ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ at the Grand Rex Cinema in Paris, France, 01 February 2024. The biopic of Jamaican musician Bob Marley will be released in France on 14 February 2024. EPA-EFE/TERESA SUAREZ

British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir attends the UK Premiere of ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ at the BFI IMAX Waterloo in London, Britain, 30 January 2024. The biopic of Jamaican musician Bob Marley is released in the UK on 16 February 2024. EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL

But judged by its success at the box office the critics misjudged the world’s continuing receptiveness to Marley. And I beg to differ with them as well.

Being Bob Marley

I’ve been a fan of Bob since I bought his first solo album, Natty Dread, in 1977. In the days before vinyl became Vinyl, and tapes gave way to CDs, I had all Wailers’ proverbial albums. I have visited his birthplace and mausoleum in the village of Nine Mile in the highlands of Jamaica, smoked herb in his house (now a museum) and put my head on the rockstone that was his pillow (as described in the song Talkin’ Blues).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Reflections on heritage: The road to Nine Mile, Jamaica

But age is mellowing me, and I’d rather talk about the merits of the film, particularly for a new generation, than be clever-clever and focus on its weaknesses.

First, as can be seen by the way his major songs and albums are back at the top of the charts (Exclusive: Bob Marley’s Catalog Gets Massive Sales, Streaming Boost From ‘One Love’ Biopic – DancehallMag), One Love has awakened millions to Marley and his music. This can only be good for the world.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a crap film with a good outcome.

Actually the script has a coherent structure. It centres on three critical years in Marley’s life between two of his most iconic and politically charged concerts – the Smile Jamaica concert in Kingston, Jamaica, on 5 December 1976 and the One Love concert on 22 April 1978. 

During these three years Marley was growing in influence, not just musically, but politically. Jamaica was almost in a civil war. The US’ Central Intelligence Agency (at the height of its global mischief in Latin America especially) had sent money and guns into Jamaica to support the right-wing presidential challenger, Edward Seaga.

Why? 

After gaining its independence in August 1962 Jamaica emerged as a small island with a loud independent voice for human rights and international accountability based on a legal order. Inspired by the political visions of its remarkable premier from 1955 to 1962, Norman Manley (later followed by his son Michael Manley), Jamaica led efforts at the United Nations to codify human rights, including socioeconomic rights, playing a particular role in advancing the drafting of the two international human rights covenants (adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966) that had grown out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As my friend, the historian Steven LB Jensen, puts it:

“From 1962 to 1968, Jamaica directly took on the human rights resistance by the two superpowers – the Soviet Union and the United States – and charged a course in international diplomacy that focused on developing human rights accountability mechanisms at national, regional and international levels, elevating human rights inside the UN’s institutional structures, expanding the project to ensure greater engagement of civil society worldwide and advancing legal techniques that could monitor violations and counter the widespread appetite for war-making as a political tool or a strategy for wider domination.”  

These were also Marley’s formative years.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75 – time to move beyond the politics of a ‘bygone age’

Ten years later a paranoid CIA worried that Jamaica was going the same way as Cuba. Its aim was to counter Jamaica’s growing political independence and influence by using criminal gangs of the urban ghetto of Kingston to disrupt society through murder and mayhem. (If you really want to understand the gritty details of the politics of Jamaica at that time, read the 2015 Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.)

In the early 1970s, Bob Marley and the Wailers were young rebels from the ghetto who had sung about rights, rebellion and revolution even before Marley had become globally successful. As explained by Roger Steffens in his brilliant oral history of Marley’s life and work, So Much Things to Say, the Wailers’ early years in the 1960s had coincided with a time of political ferment and musical experimentation that had eventually led to the emergence of reggae and, through Marley, its associations with the Rastafarian movement.

As independence failed to deliver social improvements Marley and others became a totem for the dissatisfaction, with significant influence among young people. On 3 December 1976, a day before the Smile Jamaica concert, there was an assassination attempt on Marley in which he was shot but not badly injured.

Against the odds, and in spite of his fear of a further attack, Marley played at the concert, revealing his gunshot wound to the crowd. Rita Marley, who was shot in the head, also sang as the lead of the I-Threes. The morning after he left Jamaica for the safety of England, where he arrived in the midst of another musical rebellion – the ferment that was punk rock. 

Rita Marley, widow of Jamaican reggae musician Bob Marley sings during her concert dedicated to the memory of her late husband on an open air stage in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday night, 02 June 2005. She performed with her own band ‘C Sharp’. EPA/MATE NANDORFI

In his London-written song, Punky Reggae Party, Marley aligned himself with the punks, as we see briefly in a scene where Marley and other Wailers attend a concert by The Clash, led by the late Joe Strummer, seen singing their anthem, White Riot.

Most of One Love’s action takes place between the Smile Jamaica concert and the One Love concert, a peace concert which Marley had been persuaded to headline by warring political gang leaders. At the concert he famously drew both Michael Manley and Edward Seaga (of the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party) onto the stage, lifting their hands above his head, during the singing of his iconic song Jamming. This was despite, or perhaps because of, the rumour that Seaga had been behind the assassination attempt.

Fortunately, films of these two concerts exist on YouTube. But most people don’t know that and so One Love opens the door for a wider audience to become aware of the way Marley connected social justice, politics and music. This is itself enough to justify the film.

In between the two concerts, there are flashbacks to Marley’s youth, his romance with Rita, the coming together of the Wailers and Bob’s year of temporary exile in England. In London in 1977, apart from being exposed to influences like punk rock – this was the year the Sex Pistols ambushed the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – the film shows Marley during a period of burgeoning creativity, experimenting with and deepening reggae music (which by now had become synonymous with Marley), leading to the production of the album Exodus (and the simultaneous recording of his next album, Kaya), considered by Time magazine to be the greatest album of the 20th century.

Tragically, this was also the time Marley was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in his toe.

Africa United?

Some critics have lamented that One Love only explores Bob’s musical and political commitment to African liberation and unity as a subplot. They have a point.

In the 1970s Africa became central to every aspect of Marley’s being: his music, his Rastafarian religious beliefs and his politics. For Marley the zenith of this was when he was awarded the United Nations’ Peace Medal of the Third World on 15 June 1978, in New York City, “for his courageous work appealing for justice and peace during a time of political unrest in Jamaica”.

He was bestowed the award by the African delegation to the UN led by Senegalese youth ambassador to the UN MohmmaduJohnny” Seka “on behalf of 500 million Africans”. The award recognised Marley’s efforts on behalf of millions of disenfranchised blacks around the world.

The 1978 Exodus album was followed two years later by his most overtly pan-Africanist album, Survival, originally to be called Black Survival. The movie reflects Marley’s wish to play in Africa and not just to mainly white European and North American audiences. One scene in One Love suggests this was sabotaged by his manager, Don Taylor, entering into corrupt deals with counterparts in Africa who wanted to host Marley.

It is therefore left to the footage that accompanies the closing credits to show how, a year before his death, Marley did eventually play in Africa. First, it was in Gabon, at a private concert organised by the daughters of the dictator Omar Bongo (the less said about that the better), and then three months later at the ceremony marking Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in Harare in 1980. 

Such was Marley’s commitment that he covered all the costs to get to Zimbabwe and led with songs like Zimbabwe.

After the first concert was interrupted by tear gas as ordinary Zimbabweans and freedom fighters were excluded from the official ceremony, Marley decided to play an unscheduled free concert the next night to make sure ordinary people were able to hear his music.

So, to go back to where I started. Yes, One Love may not satisfy those Marley aficionados who wanted a film that captured the complex interplay of politics, music, religious belief, and its frequent contradictions. But it is a great Bob Marley primer for the uninitiated.

With biopics about Bob Dylan, each of the Beatles and Michael Jackson in early production and Amy Winehouse due out any day now, my bet is that One Love will still prove to be the film with the greatest global sweep, capturing the vision of Marley and his music, a legacy that is already longer than his short life and which still provides the anthems and energy to those still trying to change the world. DM

Mark Heywood has written more about Marley, music and its power to inspire change. Read in Daily Maverick: Bob Marley Lives! (Still) So Much Trouble in the World and At this uncertain moment ‘Can we free the people with music?’

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