He was the king of reggae, a giant of Jamaican music whose life was cut short in 1981, aged just 36. Now Bob Marley is to be celebrated on the big screen with a film that will be shot in London and Jamaica this autumn.
Kingsley Ben-Adir, a rising star of British film and theatre, whose previous roles include Malcolm X in One Night in Miami, will play Marley in the Paramount movie.
The director who cast him is Reinaldo Marcus Green, after the success of his studio directorial debut, King Richard, in which Will Smith played Richard Williams, who coached his daughters Venus and Serena into becoming tennis superstars. It received six Oscar nominations, including best picture, with a best actor win for Smith.
Green told the Observer that, in casting Marley, he chose an actor rather than a musician: “I was more interested in his acting. The same way that I approached King Richard, the two young actresses that play Venus and Serena [Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton] had no sports capabilities whatsoever. It’s about being great actors – and then training.”
Ben-Adir, among the nominees for the rising star award in the 2021 Baftas, also played Colonel Ben Younger in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders.
Green said: “I was blown away by his audition tape. It was exquisite. I went back to look at his other work and realised how strong a performer he is.”
Marley, born to a black mother and a white father, rose from poverty, beginning his singing career in the 1960s with the vocal group the Wailers and going on to become one of the bestselling artists of all time. Poverty and oppression, along with dignity and hope, were among the themes of enduring hits, including Get Up, Stand Up; No Woman, No Cry; and Could You Be Loved. His spiritual beliefs in the Jamaican religious movement Rastafari inspired him in standing up for the poor and dispossessed.
Green said that Ben-Adir is also mixed race, among shared “fundamental characteristics which are so important in the casting”: “Then it’s about performance and ideas. He’s never going to be able to play like Bob in the time that he has to prepare for the role. But he can immerse himself in the world of Bob and folks around him, understanding everything from how to hold the guitar to what it’s like being a musician.
“Right now we don’t know how much Kingsley will actually sing. There might be a combination of real voice and the real tracks. You can’t mimic Bob Marley. You have to have an essence of who he was.”
He added that, as well as reading books on Marley and watching and listening to his performances, he will “let his fingers bleed while trying to learn how to play the guitar and take method to a whole new level”.
Green – born the year Marley died – won the special jury award for outstanding first feature at the 2018 Sundance film festival for his film Monsters and Men, an acclaimed tough drama about young African-American men.
He said that the box-office success of Bohemian Rhapsody – which won Rami Malek an Oscar for his portrayal of the Queen singer Freddie Mercury – has made film-makers realise the huge public appetite for films about musicians: “Leonard Bernstein is being created this year. Also, Elvis Presley, Madonna and Martin Scorsese’s Grateful Dead biopic … There’s an explosion of musical biopics. Bohemian set the bar in terms of reach.”
Green has written the script with Zach Baylin, who got an Oscar nomination for his King Richard screenplay.
He is also collaborating with Marley’s children, including his sons Ziggy and Stephen and daughter Cedella, as well as those closest to him: “Now that Zach and I feel the script is really singing, we can sit down with the family and Bob’s inner circle to fill in any blanks. We really want to get the notes right.”
He spoke of the family’s concern that Marley is portrayed “in a way that feels authentic and meaningful”: “We talk all the time. Every step of the way, the script, the casting, the hair, the makeup.”
Rather than making a biopic that traces an entire life, the film will instead focus on the 1970s, when Marley survived an assassination attempt in Jamaica and fled to London, where he recorded his album Exodus, with hits that included Jamming, Three Little Birds and One Love.
Although it will celebrate his life, it will portray a man who was “flawed and complex”, with “so many contradictions”, Green said: “He gave a lot of joy and spread messages of love and peace which are as important as ever today. But we want to show every side of Bob, including his toughness, without sugar-coating anything.”
He added: “I want this to be for people who know and love Bob, and who can still find out things about his life that they didn’t know, as well as introducing him to a new generation.”