Netflix’s New Bob Marley Documentary, Who Shot the Sheriff?, Isn’t Just Another Behind the Music—It’s a Story of Jamaica at War With Itself

Let’s overlook the too-cute title. Who Shot the Sheriff?, a new Netflix documentary centered around the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, is both a revelatory and tightly focused film and a provocative new way of looking at music—and at music documentaries. (The film is the first installment of Netflix’s new ReMastered series of once-a-month hour-long music documentaries centered around crimes or mysteries.)

Behind the Music this (thankfully) is not. By hanging his documentary on a singular, central event in Marley’s life—a still-unsolved crime—director Kief Davidson takes advantage of the sort of built-in tension often lacking in the got-together-made-it-big-discovered-drugs-broke-up story arc all too common in such films.

The story, for those unfamiliar (or those who haven’t read Marlon James’s masterful A Brief History of Seven Killings, which itself is centered around the shooting and, though fiction, paints a deeply convincing portrait of the Jamaica we see here): On December 3, 1976, two days before Marley was to perform at a massive, open-air concert for 80,000 people in Kingston, Jamaica—a concert put together by then–Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to simmer down the political tensions and gang violence engulfing the country—Marley along with his wife, Rita, and manager, Don Taylor, were shot at Marley’s home on Hope Road in Kingston by a small group of unknown assailants. Marley’s wife and manager were seriously injured but made full recoveries, and though Marley himself was only grazed by bullets in his chest and arm, the message sent by the attack was profound: Stay out of politics.

The incident focused the attention of the entire country of Jamaica—already rapt with anticipation of Marley’s appearance at the Kingston concert—on the decision he now had to make: Cancel his appearance and let down virtually an entire nation, or go ahead with it and risk another assassination attempt. I won’t spill the beans here, other than to note that the documentary has all the players you’d want to hear from—most notably Edward Seaga, later Jamaica’s prime minister but in 1976 the bitter Jamaica Labor Party rival to Manley and his People’s National Party supporters. There’s also a mysterious blurred-out figure in the film who, along with some other notable voices, lends some credence to the oft-suspected notion that our own CIA may have had something to do with the attempt to bring down Marley.

Those looking for an excellent, exhaustive treatment of Marley’s entire life should still turn to the two-plus-hours-long Marley, Kevin Macdonald’s 2012 film. But for a brief history of a more tightly circumscribed time, place, and cast of characters, Who Shot the Sheriff? stands on its own. (Further episodes of Netflix’s ReMastered series will investigate the 2002 attempt on Run-D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay’s life, the utterly ignominious last night of Sam Cooke’s life, and the undeniably transfixing mystery of what actually happened during—and the political firestorm kicked off by—Johnny Cash’s impromptu concert for Richard Nixon at the White House in 1972.)

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