Hot Docs 2012: Marley

It's been thirty years since his death now, and Bob Marley is still pretty much everywhere all the time. Especially in the summer. Especially especially anywhere near college students. But while the stories behind many of the other giants of 20th century pop music are relatively well-known (quick: find someone who doesn't know which Asian performance artist "broke up" The Beatles), Marley's is a little more obscure. Like, did you know he got shot by an assassin? In the 1970s, as Marley and reggae music were becoming global phenomenons, Jamaica was descending into a civil war. The leaders of the two main political parties — the socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley and his opponent, the more conservative Edward Seaga  — were hiring gangsters to fight bloody battles in the streets of Kingston. Marley agreed to play a huge outdoor concert in the name of peace, but when it turned out the Prime Minister was the one organizing the whole thing, the reggae legend came under fire. Very literally. A gunman shot the singer, his wife and his manager. They all survived, and Marley showed off his scars at the concert. But the attack helped drive him out of Jamaica  — a few weeks later, he moved to England.

Marley's relationship with his homeland is one of the main threads in the new documentary about his life from director Kevin MacDonald (One Day In September, The Last Kind of Scotland). And it's a difficult relationship. Marley grew up poor and discriminated against (the child of a White father and Black mother). He came of age in the slums of Kingston, in Trench Town, the cradle of reggae. He became famous as a Rastafari, a religion not just looked down upon in Jamaica, but one which claimed pot-smoking as a central — and illegal — tenet. And he would spend years in self-imposed exile after the shooting, before making a triumphant return at another peace concert: this time, Marley would famously have Manley and Seaga shake hands.

But that all really is just a thin sliver of the full story. And Marley gives an overview of it all. In fact, if anything, the movie's biggest problem is simply that there's too much to tell. Bob Marley's story may not be the most famous in pop music, but it's definitely one of the most interesting. Even at two and a half hours, the documentary can feel a little bit rushed. Maybe next time, he'll get a whole series. The Bob Marley Anthology?

- Adam Bunch

Marley screens again at the Bloor Cinema from May 18-31.

Find all of our coverage of Hot Docs 2012 here. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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