How ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Brought the 1976 Smile Jamaica Concert and ‘Exodus’ Recording Sessions to the Big Screen 

With biopics of Whitney Houston, Freddie Mercury and Elvis in the cultural rearview and blockbusters based on the lives and careers of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Linda Ronstadt on the way, the film industry is firmly in its musical biopic era. Armed with an enduring global legacy and a timeless catalog of culture-shifting reggae classics, Bob Marley: One Love – which hit theaters on Feb. 14 — enters the playing field as the latest offering from Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of the Acadamy Award-nominated King Richard

Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir (Barbie, One Night In Miami…) as reggae legend Bob Marley, the film covers the dynamic between Marley, his backing band The Wailers and his family in the year immediately following an assassination attempt on his life. Rounded out by a cast that includes BAFTA Award winner Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley, Bob’s widow (and a member of his backing vocal group the I Threes) and BAFTA nominee James Norton as producer and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, One Love aims to humanize a man whose talent and message caused him to, in many ways, transcend mortality. Bob Marley’s songs have garnered a whopping seven billion official on-demand U.S. streams, per Luminate, while his Legend compilation is the second-longest charting album in Billboard 200 history (821 weeks). 

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With Rita – alongside children Cedella and Ziggy Marley – acting as co-producers, a commitment to a sincere and respectful portrayal of Bob Marley’s musicality, reggae history and Jamaican culture anchored the film’s journey to the silver screen. 

Rather than attempting to document the entirety of Marely’s life, One Love focuses on the years between 1976 and 1978 – and two pivotal Marley music milestones receive key showcases. The first, the legendary Smile Jamaica concert, was an extremely ambitious undertaking – one that was only possible through the care taken by the film’s producers and Jamaican cast and crew members. Although Ben-Adir is not Jamaican — “[It] was okay as long as the family was in support of it,” he says — both Jamaican-born actors and performers of Jamaican descent make up the lion’s share of the film’s cast. Important secondary characters include Jamaican singer Sevana as reggae legend and I Threes member Judy Mowatt, Hector Roots Lewis as Wailers drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett and Aston Barrett Jr. as his father, the late Wailers bandleader Aston “Family Man” Barrett. 

Held on Dec. 5, 1976, at National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica, the Smile Jamaica Concert was a massive benefit intended to counter political violence and unrest in the country during its tumultuous election cycle. Marley was shot in his home in an assassination attempt just two days before the performance, but he recovered in time to play a historic 90-minute set alongside the Wailers for an audience of over 80,000 people. 

Given that Smile Jamaica is one of the most famed music concerts in history, recreating the performance for One Love was a painstaking process for which the cast rose to the occasion. “It was fun! It was long though,” says Lewis about filming major performance scenes like the Smile Jamaica concert. “At first, you’re excited to play music — that’s what me and Sev do, and we know we know the vibe of that. We have the endurance fi it. It was fun until after a while it wasn’t. You have to shoot from the front [and] the back a million times, I mean I felt sorry for [Sevana] because she had to go in whole dresses and whole headwraps and stuff!” 

Bob Marley: One Love marks the feature film debuts of Sevana, Lewis and Barrett Jr., but as longtime musicians and performers they looked to their own experiences to help inform their portrayals of their respective characters. As Jamaicans, the three artists also scored opportunities to get intimately familiar with the people whose stories they were bringing to the big screen. Sevana, who first auditioned for Rita Marley, spent valuable one-on-one time with Mowatt. 

“I was able to meet Judy Mowatt in person, and she’s an angel, a divine woman,” Sevana gushes. “I was able to sit with her and hear her perspective. She brought me through her house. She showed me pictures of things that meant a lot to her. This is a part of history to be recollected through film. Understanding that Judy Mowatt was a woman of principle and integrity and understanding what this story means to greater Jamaica, I couldn’t say no.”

As a member of the I Threes, alongside Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, Mowatt served as one of the backing vocalists for Bob Marley & the Wailers. As a soloist, she released Black Woman (1979) — widely considered to be one of the greatest albums in reggae history – and became the first woman to land a Grammy nomination for best reggae album (Working Wonders, 1986). “Myself, Lashana Lynch (who plays Rita Marley) and Naomi Cohen (who plays Griffiths), we did a lot of separate rehearsals,” says Sevana. “We had choreography that we had to practice. We had to make sure that we got the harmonies right for each section. We had to basically become a group and get the body movements and mannerisms of each character without mimicking them. We became them.” 

Like Sevana, Barrett. Jr, the nephew of the late Carlton “Carly” Barrett, also had a very intimate preparation for his role. “We had a whole day together talking about his uncle, talking about certain things that made him who he is — like the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he did not talk!” Lewis says. “There was a lot of similarities I saw between myself and him that helped me to really bring out the role.” 

One of the key instrumentalists in popularizing the one drop rhythm, an authentic recapturing of Carly’s drum playing proved to be a microcosm of the One Love cast’s commitment to taking pride in every detail of the film’s music scenes. “They told me from the beginning that the drums are something you can’t hide in a film,” explains Lewis. “You have to learn it. From the chop to the bop, everything.” Highly respected across Jamaica and the world as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Lewis also served as a guiding light for his fellow castmates in terms of embodying their respective roles.  

“He barely hung out with the cast!” jokes Sevana, who previously acted in local productions before her feature film debut in One Love. “He was just learning the things over and over again, and I definitely saw that reflected across everybody and how seriously they took their craft. I was studying [Judy’s] movements on stage like, was she more spirited than the others? What was her energy like? It’s kind of like she wanted to crawl inside of the music, so I really took that to heart.” 

For Aston Barrett Jr., his relationship with One Love more closely mirrored that of Ziggy Marley than either Sevana or Lewis. After all, he was tasked with portraying his father in the strong-opening biopic, and he had multiple family members whose likeness would be brought to life in the film. “My father has been ill for a while, and before he got really ill, told him that I was going to play him in [One Love],” Barrett Jr. says. “He said ‘Yeah, man, you’re the rightful one.’”  

Unfortunately, Aston Barrett Sr. would pass shortly before the film opened in theaters (Feb. 3), echoing a similar moment that occurred during filming. “We went to [shoot in] England right before Uncle Tyrone passed, and it really was bothering me because I couldn’t go to the funeral because I had to the acting class,” says Barrett Jr. of his late uncle, a keyboardist for Marley & the Wailers. “I don’t know if Uncle Tyrone in heaven just picked this guy, but there couldn’t be no other guy to play Uncle Tyrone. The man [Tosin Cole] literally reminds me of Uncle Tyrone and he never even met him. The man, when him smile, Uncle Tyrone. Same vibes.” 

As much as Bob Marley: One Love is a meditation on the everlasting power of music, it is also an ode to the concept of family in all its iterations. From Ziggy and Julian Marley to Skip and YG Marley (who recently scored his first Billboard Hot 100 hit with “Praise Jah in the Moonlight”), the world has been well acquainted with the constantly evolving legacy of the music of Bob Marley’s children. The metaphysical synergy of music and family also courses through the Barretts. Shortly before Uncle Tyrone passed, Barrett Jr. toured alongside him as part of The Wailers Band – the present-day configuration of The Wailers, in which Barrett Jr. has succeeded his father as bandleader. That innate knowledge of the artistry and musicality of Bob Marley & the Wailers allowed Barrett Jr. to pick up some slack on minor details which also doubled as incredibly consequential components of the film’s major music scenes. 

“Aston made sure the right drum set was there for the right concert,” explains Lewis. “It was very important, and it actually [shifted] the game of how things look like, what bass he was using for that concert as opposed to the other concert. What he was wearing. He got people to change my wardrobe!” 

For Ben-Adir, an actor who notably did not grow up in the throes of Bob Marley’s musical expeditions, going back to basics was key. Over six months before filming began, Ben-Adir got himself a guitar and learned how to play basic chords while listening to Bob Marley’s music and watching his performances, particularly his rendition of “War” at Smile Jamaica. The BAFTA nominee rehearsed for hours each day, playing every song in Bob’s sprawling discography. “I performed all of the songs live on set,” says Ben-Adir. “I was always singing into the microphone. Anyone who was on set could always hear me, but our understanding was that the concert scenes and Bob’s vocals were always going to be what the audience was going to hear.” 

While the Smile Jamaica concert is the film’s largest showcase of live performances, the film also heavily focuses on the making of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Exodus album. The now-classic record — which prioritizes explorations of faith, religious politics, love and peace – arrived in 1977 and featured classic tracks such as “Three Little Birds,” “Jamming” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low.” Crafted in the months immediately following the December 1976 assassination attempt on Marley’s life, Exodus is a landmark record that further bolstered the reggae legend’s commercial success and status as a sociopolitical symbol of peace and unity. Ben-Adir says filming the Exodus recording scenes was “really special because everyone around [him] played music… I could always just look to my left or my right and someone was there to put my hands in the right position or correct me on a chord.” 

The Exodus recording scenes provided an invaluable opportunity for musicians like Sevana, Lewis and Barrett Jr. to help One Love capture a depiction of Marley beyond the weed iconography and tri-color Rastafarian flag that his likeness has been boiled down to in certain cultural spaces. Carrying their own music-making experiences onto set, the One Love cast uses these scenes to re-center and emphasize the goal and message of Marley’s Exodus album. As he sings in the bridge of the album’s title track, “Jah come to break down ’pression/ Rule equality/ Wipe away transgression/ Set the captives free.” 

“When you listen to ‘Exodus,’ it’s an epic song. With all the challenges we gave today, we were definitely able to connect with it,” says Lewis. “We had to have composure while [filming those scenes] and not get too lost in it. It definitely showed me that we have to keep up with the times, we haffi mek music like this if we really love music as pure people.” Sevana adds: “Nina Simone said, ‘How could you be an artist and not reflect the times,’ right? This is music for all times, because it was reiterating the truth — and truth doesn’t have an expiration.” 

Although Exodus contends with some of Bob’s headiest and most taxing lyrical themes, the cast understood these scenes as a window into the childlike sibling dynamic between Bob and the Wailers. Moments showcasing those relationships were imperative to making a biopic that didn’t completely rest on the laurels of Marley’s staggering cultural cachet. “So many things happened during this Exodus time, but you can tell that they all have an inner child,” muses Barrett Jr. “They all act like kids! That’s why you can mek music suh nice, even though them serious at the same time. As Bob said, [his] music is so simple that even a baby can understand it.” As such, the cast always remained in character on set, at times, calling each other by their character’s name instead of their given names. 

While the movie and its cast do a commendable job trying to get the music right, its soundtrack EP has caught some warranted flak for including just one Jamaican recording artist (Skip Marley). Alongside Marley, the EP features covers of Bob Marley & the Wailers biggest hits by a range of singer-songwriters from all over the map, geographically and musically, including Kacey Musgraves, Leon Bridges, Daniel Caesar, Wizkid, Jessie Reyez, and Bloody Civilian. The full project hit digital streaming platforms the same night One Love opened in theaters (Feb. 14). Billboard could not reach producer Ziggy Marley for comment regarding the EP.

Outside of the cast and accompanying soundtrack, composer Kris Bowers did his due diligence to effectively convey the sounds of Jamaica and roots reggae through the film’s original score. Like Ben-Adir, Bowers – who also scored recent major motion pictures such as Blitz Bazawule’s The Color Purple (2023) and Ava DuVernay’s Origin (2023) — is not of Jamaican descent, but his trust in director Reinaldo Marcus Green (with whom he previously collaborated on 2021’s King Richard) and respect for Bob Marley’s legacy drew him to One Love.  

“The one thing I was excited about with this being the story is how much [Bob’s] introduction to the score for [Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960)] made him feel inspired to make this album that had the scale of a movie and this cinematic gravitas,” says Bowers. “This movie focuses largely on his personal exodus, leaving and returning and being in London. This exposure to a different culture helped me create a rule for myself that I could play with different instrumentation that is a bit more orchestral in nature [given that] he was inspired by that sound, even if the album Exodus doesn’t have an orchestra on it.” 

While Bowers was unafraid to inject the film’s score with the cinematic bombast of the film that inspired the Exodus album, he also made sure to tap Jamaican Rastafari musicians to respectfully emulate the roots reggae foundation of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ sound. “The choice to incorporate Nyabinghi percussion came from [Bob’s] relationship with that music,” explains Bowers. “In all of his music and live shows, he would always have a Nyabinghi percussion ensemble with him; it’s connected to the Rastafarian religion. Ziggy and I talked a lot about how those drums might be able to represent different ideas in the score and be a part of the palette in a way that connects it to that culture,” he says. 

According to Bowers, all of the Nyabinghi percussion was recorded at Tuff Gong studios during on-location filming in Jamaica; both Ziggy and Steven Marley were present for those sessions, helping Bowers produce and direct each movement. In addition to the Nyabinghi percussion, Bowers also notes “Redemption Song,” “Turn Your Lights Down Low” and “Running Away” as three Marley songs that directly inspired the score in some capacity. 

“It’s almost a different language, right? They were almost translating for me, where I would say, ‘This is what I want energetically,’ and they were able to articulate to this ensemble what it was that we might be able to,” says Bowers. “I’m a novice when it [comes] to that type of music. It was so fascinating for me to watch them explain how to evoke a certain feeling based on tempo or certain aspects of the instrumentation.” 

As audiences pack into theaters to take in One Love, the cast hopes viewers will come away from the film with a truly nuanced understanding of Bob Marley, reggae and Jamaica. “It’s about understanding what it means to be a Jamaican with a dream, with a purpose,” muses Lewis. “We need the inspiration today and Bob is our foundation. We can listen to reggae music [because] it has that functionality of inspiration and upliftment. It went to the world, but he sang the struggles of our people. He sang the struggles of all people. One love, one heart.” 

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