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What 'Bob Marley: One Love' Teaches You About Writing a Biopic

February 23, 2024
9 min read time

Bob Marley may never have discovered his voice. Amid the turmoil in Jamaica, his life could have ended before he could ignite the world with songs of peace and freedom. Or he could have chosen an easier path, but then there likely wouldn’t have been a biopic created based on his life. Bob Marley: One Love shows how Marley's success and determination for peace sparked a musical revolution and changed the world.

What makes biopics intriguing is the behind-the-scenes look at a life that has accomplished something extraordinary. Because of the current fame or renown of the subject, audiences tend to forget that success was never a foregone conclusion. Biopics humanizes the larger-than-life figures by showing the motivations and struggles that set them on the path to success and led them to pursue a life deemed significant.

In the new musician-centered biopic, Bob Marley: One Love, the audience gets to glimpse inside a small window of time when Bob Marley blew up on the music scene, popularized a new genre and spread a message of peace, justice, and love.

For screenwriters, here are five lessons to take away from Bob Marley: One Love.

Read More: Write On: 'Bob Marley: One Love' Writers Terence Winter and Frank E. Flowers

1. Snapshot of a Man and a Moment

While there are flashback scenes of Bob Marley’s life as a child and early on in his career, the majority of the film takes place in the late-1970s. It was during this time that Jamaica was experiencing the possibility of a violent civil war as two political parties fought to win a contentious election.

At the beginning of the film, you watch Marley try to put together a concert designed to bring the hostile parties together in a celebration of peace and love. During this time, you get a glimpse into the life of a Rastafarian like Marley and gain insight into how they are perceived by the people around them, offering a firsthand experience of island life from their perspective.

For instance, after passing through a checkpoint, Marley and his two sons are almost pulled over, and he comments on their treatment, “When it comes to Rasta, shoot first.” Soon after, Marley is nearly gunned down in his home in a raid that kills several band members and close friends, as well as injures his wife.

From here, Marley travels to London, creates his epic Exodus album, and begins traveling the world.

This film is merely a snapshot of Marley’s life and doesn’t encompass much of his childhood or the beginnings of his career. In the case of John Nash and Freddie Mercury, whose stories were told in A Beautiful Mind and Bohemian Rhapsody, respectively, the film covered almost their entire life. Other biopics, like Lincoln and The Imitation Game, cover a short span of the subject's life.

These films could have been an entire life or a snapshot, but what matters is the story you want to tell and how best to achieve it for dramatic, story-telling purposes.

Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Rita Marley (Lashana Lynch) hugging in a parking lot in 'Bob Marley: One Love'

2. Even Music Biopics Have Tropes

Every genre has its tropes, even those that are true stories. Tropes are those moments, characters, situations, and more that the audience expects, even if they don’t realize it. In a romantic comedy, there might be the meet-cute moments when the two stars run into each other randomly and sparks fly or, in the horror genre, a jump scare.

Even specific genres, like a music biopic, will have tropes that you can use to enhance how you tell the story.

Here are some of those tropes used in Bob Marley: One Love:

Inside the Studio

It’s natural that a movie based on a musician would have some scenes inside a music studio. These scenes often have a little frustration as someone is unhappy with how things are going, and the music has to be tweaked until we finally hear the beginning of one of their hit songs. This all leads to…

The Lead of the Movie Is Driving the Music

Also, usually in the studio, the main character tends to start a free association and gains inspiration at the moment. They tell the others their idea and even direct them on how to play the instrument. 

Unconventional musicians

Another trope often found in music biopics is the musician who doesn’t initially fit in. In Bob Marley: One Love, it’s a bass player. His look and vibe are not similar to the Reggae and ska-type sound, and the others first eye him skeptically. Of course, they soon grow to appreciate his contribution.

Being a Musical Genius

The hard thing about being a musical genius is everyone else who doesn’t see your vision. Marley has the same conflicts with his band and his wife. It’s happened in similar movies, such as Bohemian RhapsodyThat Thing You Do, and Love & Mercy.

The Band Reconciles

This doesn’t mean the band gets back together and lives happily ever after. Sometimes, the conflicts were too much, and the bands stayed apart. Other times, they reunite and put on an amazing show. The reconciliation part is on the subject, but depending on how things played out in real life, or if you’re writing a movie or TV show about a band, it’s up to whether supporting players accept them back.

Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) playing in a studio with his band in 'Bob Marley: One Love'

3. What Writers Can Learn from Bob Marley

Marley struggled to handle the deadly threats toward himself, his family, and his friends impacting his music. To find himself again, he had to leave his home country. He spent time in London, far away from danger, and it allowed him the freedom to create some of his best work.

Essentially, Marley was stuck—almost a form of writer’s block. Think about your surroundings and even your writing environment. Do you have the habit of writing in the same place every day, at the same time? Mix it up. You may not need to fly to London, but if you work from a home office, try hitting up a coffee shop.

Marley’s distractions were life-threatening (hopefully yours aren’t), and getting away from what goes on in your every day is a lesson you can take away to experience new surroundings and find a different perspective on the story you want to tell.

Read More: So You Want To Write A Biopic?

Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Rita Marley (Lashana Lynch) talking on the hood of a car in 'Bob Marley: One Love'

4. Share Something Unique

In Bob Marley: One Love, the audience gets to experience some of the life, culture, and customs of the Rastafari. There is a history to the people and rituals they have that help engage the viewer by showing something new and unique while indicating more similarities than differences between cultures and people.

This is often used in superhero movies or sci-fi films when two differing worlds work together for the common good. Rastafari was novel to the world, but it was the music, so the filmmakers showed some of its culture and beliefs to make it familiar to the audience.

Read More: The Disaster Artist and The Anti-Biopic

Bob Marley One Love (7)

5. Going Back Home

At the end of many biopics—but certainly not limited to them—is the idea of the lead character returning home. It’s a way of reckoning with the past and showing how they’ve changed. Marley did return home after spending time abroad. He was still determined to tame the polarizing environment. Now, his music had a greater impact on bringing the world together because he was no longer just Jamaica-famous, but world-famous.

Biopics based on real-life people and events all have a hero’s journey. With Marley, he had everything from challenges and temptations to transformation and revelation before eventually returning home to a different person than when he left. 

Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) singing on stage in 'Bob Marley: One Love'

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Whether you’re writing a musical biopic or crafting a story around a central hero, studying musical biopics can help form your characters and the journeys they take.

And if you’ve already written a biopic, we recommend checking out the ScreenCraft True Story and Public Domain competition, which now features opportunities with Academy Award winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and Taylor Sheridan’s production company.

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