Ziggy Marley Talks ‘Bob Marley: One Love’s’ Surprise Box Office Success: ‘The Critics Don’t Get It, but the People Get It’

Before “Bob Marley: One Love” hit theaters on Valentine’s Day, the musical biopic about the Reggae legend was expected to sing its way to No. 1 on the charts.

But box office projections indicated the Paramount movie — which chronicles Marley’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) rise to fame in the mid-1970s and complex relationship with his wife Rita Marley (Lashana Lynch) up until he died in 1981 — would start slow. It looked like it would collect $30 million and $35 million during the six days between Valentine’s Day on Wednesday and Presidents’ Day on Monday.

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Instead, “One Love” smashed those expectations, earning $52 million during the extended holiday stretch. It remained victorious in its sophomore outing (despite the presence of three new releases), raising its domestic total to $71 million. After three weeks in theaters, the film is nearing the $150 million mark globally. It’s an impressive benchmark for a PG-13 drama that’s aimed at older female audiences and doesn’t feature superheroes or CGI to entice moviegoers. Moreover, “One Love” wasn’t exactly a critical darling. Reviews from film critics, including Variety’s, were middling at best.

“I remember when reviews came in. It was like, ‘Let’s see what the people say.’ That was my demeanor,” Ziggy Marley — Marley’s son, who produced the film — recalls.

Audiences, however, dug “One Love,” which landed an encouraging “A” CinemaScore from opening weekend crowds. This reversal of fortune made complete sense to Ziggy Marley given his late father’s relationship to music reviews in his day.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, this is actually perfect for something representing Bob. That the critics don’t get it, but the people get it.’ It was meant to be this way,” Marley says. “I was just going over the review of the ‘Exodus’ album [the 1977 album from Bob Marley and the Wailers]. They killed it, [writing] ‘It’s terrible.’ So, the box office thing was how it was meant to be. People make the decisions, not the critics.”

As those box office receipts rolled in, Ziggy Marley was on a text chain with the film’s director and co-writer Reinaldo Marcus Green, Paramount motion picture group co-president Mike Ireland and the studio’s senior VP of production Bryan Oh.

“The people were the ones speaking for the film, and that gives us a lot of joy and pride,” says Green. “You can’t get those numbers without people telling people to go see it. That’s word of mouth and it’s still going.”

Here, Ziggy Marley, Green, Ireland and Oh spoke with Variety about the film’s surprise success… and what comes next.

At what point did become clear that the movie would surpass box office projections?

Ireland: We had the benefit of seeing how the movie played with audiences around the world — whether it was in Kingston or London or Paris or the premiere in L.A. At the Kingston premiere, on Kingsley’s first line, the audience applauded. I won’t forget it. In that moment, I knew we got it right. That experience is not reflected in whatever the weekend projection is. Audiences just enjoy the movie; they clap and they cry, and they walk out feeling something. So, we assumed that would carry it beyond those projections. The question was: How much more.

Oh: Something that models and predictions can’t ever take into account is word of mouth. People experiencing it and recommending it to their family members, their friends, wanting to re-experience it.

What are some of those things that have resonated with audiences?

Marley: I remember we released the trailer and people were very emotional for some reason. People [were] crying. You don’t get that often.

Green: People were leaving the theater saying, “Everybody in my row was singing and dancing.” Kingsley and Lashana’s performances got a lot of shouts. People spoke to the authenticity of the film; they’re happy that we were authentic to the language. The music, obviously, always gets a shout.

Marley: It seems like one of the main criticisms is that we want more.

Ziggy, what do you think critics were missing?

Marley: The reviews of my father’s “Exodus” album… they bashed the album that became the album of the century. It’s not what they missed, but what they were looking for. They were looking for a different story. Our story’s about this man inside himself and his heart. It’s not a typical biopic or rags-to-riches story. It’s spiritual, too. So maybe they’re missing the essence of the thing and what it’s supposed to be instead of what they think it should be.

“One Love’s” opening weekend was on par with recent commercially successful musical biopics, like “Elvis” ($31 million) and “Rocketman” ($25 million). What does that indicate about the appeal of this genre?

Ireland: Bob has a universal appeal that not many artists have. He’s a generational talent. Whether you are a contemporary of Bob’s or a college kid today, chances are you’ve listened to his music and had a poster on your wall. More broadly about the genre – people need a reason to go to theaters. They’ve been conditioned to accept that they can turn on their TV and get a wide variety of content. But musicals do feel like a communal experience. It’s an analog to going to a concert. You can feel that energy in musical numbers. We’re going to see more and more.

The film moved from January to Valentine’s Day. Looking back, how prophetic was it to land on that release date?

Ireland: It was definitional. It helped us shape the narrative in terms of choosing what pieces of his life to include or exclude. It wasn’t just prophetic, it was actually a compass.

How do you sum up the six years that it took to make this movie?

Ireland: The degree to which the audience has embraced the movie as their own, whether they’re Bob Marley fans or not… the degree to which they’ve engaged with his message — and Ziggy said it, it’s less about the biographical history of the man and more about the degree to which his message has persisted over time.. is probably the most rewarding moviemaking experience I’ve ever had. I saw the trailer for the Japanese release of the movie and the literal translation of one of the lines in it is “The people need him again.” That landed with me in such a big way, because I feel like that’s what this movie is doing now.

Bryan, by the time the movie was filming in Jamaica, you’d already spent four and a half years in development. What do you remember about day one?

Oh: It was very scary for all of us, who felt the responsibility that we were embarking on. This was more than a movie to us — for every crew member involved, every cast member, from costumes to production design. This was more than a job. There’s a spirituality behind it that’s pushing it forward. We knew the time was now and that message of unity and hope and love is needed now more than ever. There was a higher calling driving every step of the way.

Reinaldo, I want to touch on what you said about the authenticity of the language. What went into the decision not to over-explain Bob’s accent, the use of Jamaican Patois or to subtitle the film?

Green: People, generally speaking, are happy with the choice that we made to make the language as authentic as we possibly could. If you see an interview of Bob Marley, you understand him, and you certainly understand the music. So we knew that was a flight path we wanted to stay on. You don’t understand every word, but you understand what he’s saying. Had we tried to water down the language, we would have failed immediately, and we knew that.

Marley: We’re inviting people into Bob’s world. In real life, because a lot of foreigners come to visit my father, there are no subtitles. If you figure it out, you figure it out. This is the real experience of being around him, his people and his environment. No extra explanations.

That’s right. In real life, you would not have subtitles, so why would you do that in a movie? What did that decision look like from the studio’s perspective?

Ireland: Regardless of genre, audiences are incredibly savvy in how they consume cinema. And what they crave most is authenticity. We worked hard to ensure that authenticity, whether it’s in the Patois or the fact that we’re [on location] in Jamaica. We felt we owed it to Bob, but also to the audience to tell the story in the right way. There probably were a number of discussions, but we never veered off this course.

Oh: I’m appreciative of all the support because in another setting, there would have been a lot of testing; and a lot of conversations.

How important was it to have Ziggy’s support and presence throughout this process?

Green: I felt very blessed to have a producer that had that level of commitment to the art. Understanding that we were making a movie. Understanding that we were gonna have to make difficult choices. And to have that producer on set, showing up at 5 a.m. That’s the work ethic Bob had. You see it in his children.

Hollywood always wants to capitalize on success with a sequel, a TV movie or limited series. Ziggy, what do you want to see happen next when it comes to honoring the legacy of your parents?

Marley: I’m satisfied right now. I feel good. I’m full. That was a good meal, and I don’t want to get overstuffed.

For the studio, what does the success of this movie mean in terms of greenlighting other musical projects? Or more Marley projects?

Ireland: Again and again, the industry asks you to prove the validity of movies starring, made for, and made by people of color. I remember in London, Bryan and I were at the after-party and we had a cocktail in hand. Bryan had this look of reverie on his face. He looked around the room and said, “Look at all these people of color.” Looking forward, that is the most definitional thing about this movie.

Oh: It was brave of the studio — I’m not on the greenlight committee — to put resources into making the definitive worldwide theatrical version of this without a quote-unquote “traditional movie star.” That is rare, and hopefully, this can lead to more opportunities.

To that point, hopefully, it creates new comparisons. Part of the methodology behind box office projections considers when a movie doesn’t have a big-name star, or when it’s helmed by a BIPOC director. And often, those movies “over-perform.” How does “One Love” help to change the narrative for Hollywood?

Ireland: We do it again. And then we do it again. And then we do it again. And eventually, you arrive at a place where you no longer hear that.

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