Scratch­ing the sur­face

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

IThe Up­set­ter: The Life and Mu­sic of Lee Scratch Perry, doc­u­men­tary not rated, CCA Cine­math­eque, 2 chiles Lee “Scratch” Perry, born Rain­ford Hugh Perry in 1936 in Kendal, Ja­maica, be­gan his sto­ried ca­reer as a mu­si­cian and pro­ducer by help­ing build a road in his home­land in the 1950s. While driv­ing a trac­tor and mov­ing dirt, Perry heard mu­sic em­a­nat­ing from the stones as they were loos­ened from the soil.

In the doc­u­men­tary film The Up­set­ter, Perry and nar­ra­tor Beni­cio Del Toro — a big Perry fan be­fore the pro­ject came knock­ing, ac­cord­ing to co-di­rec­tor Adam Bhala Lough — tells much of Perry’s story, be­gin­ning with his child­hood of poverty and end­ing with Perry’s at­tempt to re­vi­tal­ize his ca­reer as a much older man liv­ing in self-im­posed ex­ile from Ja­maica.

If Bob Mar­ley and The Wail­ers are the face of reg­gae mu­sic, then Perry, ac­cord­ing to the film, is the man be­hind the mask. Af­ter earn­ing his wings at a Kingston record­ing stu­dio — first as a jan­i­tor and later as a tal­ent scout, per­former, and pro­ducer — Perry recorded songs for Cle­ment Cox­sone Dodd’s la­bel. Rifts formed be­tween Perry and Dodd over fi­nan­cial mat­ters, and Perry wound up on Joe Gibbs’ Amal­ga­mated Records im­print, but that re­la­tion­ship also soured.

Perry branched out and cre­ated his own la­bel, Up­set­ter, in 1968. His first self-penned sin­gle, “Peo­ple Funny Boy,” is con­sid­ered a ma­jor Ja­maican-mu­sic mile­stone. While it’s ar­guably not the very first reg­gae tune — Larry Mar­shall’s “Nanny Goat” marked a de­fin­i­tive tran­si­tion from rock steady to the reg­gae sound and was re­leased around the same time — “Peo­ple Funny Boy” at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the record in­dus­try and be­came a hit in Ja­maica. Soon af­ter­ward, a young Bob Mar­ley, who was look­ing to jump-start his own ca­reer, knocked on Perry’s door and moved into his house.

“I gave him tea and milk and honey ev­ery day to change his voice,” Perry says in the film. “I wanted to make spir­i­tual mu­sic. ... I was the prophet, and Mar­ley was the king. ... I was Mar­cus

Gar­vey, and he was Haile Se­lassie.” Perry and Mar­ley col­lab­o­rated on nu­mer­ous reg­gae main­stays, in­clud­ing “My Cup,” “Duppy Con­queror,” and the Bob Mar­ley and The Wail­ers al­bums Soul Rebel and Soul Revo­lu­tion.

But the po­tent mu­sic-his­tory-mak­ing af­fil­i­a­tion be­tween the two wouldn’t last. In 1973, ac­cord­ing to Perry, he — The Up­set­ter — un­law­fully sold the rights to Bob Mar­ley and The Wail­ers’ mu­sic to a com­pany in the U.K. An an­gry Mar­ley sev­ered pro­fes­sional ties with Perry and wrote “Trench­town Rock” — with the re­frain “You reap what you sow, Trench Town rock, and ev­ery­one know now, Trench Town rock” — as a re­sponse to Perry’s fi­nan­cial in­dis­cre­tions. Perry de­fends the ac­tion, stat­ing that he did it to give Mar­ley more in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure. The two re­mained friends un­til Mar­ley’s death and even worked to­gether again, but not with the same fre­quency and suc­cess they had de­vel­oped be­fore their fall­ing-out.

A pat­tern of bro­ken re­la­tion­ships emerges from archival footage and dis­turb­ing in­ter­views with Perry that, while not of­fered up with any chrono­log­i­cal clar­ity, paint a clear pic­ture of a man de­scend­ing into drug-and al­co­hol-fu­eled self-de­struc­tion and quite pos­si­bly suc­cumb­ing to an un­di­ag­nosed men­tal ill­ness. Perry’s Black Ark record­ing stu­dio/com­mune at his home in Kingston be­came a hang­out and meet­ing place for the Ras­ta­man com­mu­nity in Kingston, and his taste for ganja be­came in­sa­tiable. At his “Ark of the Covenant,” as he called it, Perry pro­duced up to 20 songs per week. Dur­ing that time, he helped pi­o­neer yet an­other style of mu­sic: dub. Perry’s bass-and beat-heavy remix tech­niques (“Bass was the heart­beat,” Perry says, “and drums were the brain”) were ap­plied to nu­mer­ous artists of the pe­riod, in­clud­ing The Clash, which cov­ered Perry’s “Po­lice and Thieves.”

Dub, Del Toro ex­plains, was the “for­bearer of all elec­tronic mu­sic, in­clud­ing hip-hop.” While that is the case, thanks mainly to Ja­maica-born DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Camp­bell, the film never ex­plores that con­nec­tion or Perry’s di­rect in­flu­ence on orig­i­nal hip-hop with any depth — al­though the Beastie Boys get mul­ti­ple men­tions in con­nec­tion with Perry’s con­tri­bu­tion to their 1998 al­bum, Hello Nasty (a cut ti­tled “Dr. Lee, PhD”).

The Black Ark stu­dio burned down, and Perry non­cha­lantly ad­mit­ted to start­ing the blaze. The more Kingston be­came a bat­tle­ground for crooked politi­cians, po­lice­men on the take, and street crim­i­nals, the more Perry be­came a tar­get for “beg­gars and thieves.” His drug use and para­noia man­i­fested in a kind of bro­ken spir­i­tu­al­ism that the film cap­tures well. The Ark had been “pol­luted with un­holy spir­its,” Perry says, point­ing the fin­ger at Rasta­far­i­ans. In burn­ing it down, “I burned down my­self. I had to burn it down and be re­born.”

Af­ter his “re­birth,” which was ac­tu­ally more of an aban­don­ment of his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to col­leagues, friends, and fam­ily (in­clud­ing his chil­dren), Perry moved to Eng­land and then to Zurich, where he mar­ried his sec­ond wife and had more chil­dren while plan­ning his come­back as a solo artist.

Co-direc­tors Lough and Ethan Hig­bee stretch the doc­u­men­tary’s length past the 90-minute mark, to its detri­ment. In­stead of us­ing the time to ex­plore the ups and downs of Perry’s life and ca­reer through ex­tended mu­sic clips or in­ter­views with peo­ple who knew, loved, or worked with him, they opt for the train-wreck ap­proach, giv­ing Perry’s strange mono­logues and manic out­bursts the most screen time.

Perry’s ad­dic­tions and odd be­hav­ior cer­tainly played a role in his down­fall as a pro­ducer, song­writer, and per­former, but in­stead of ex­plor­ing the root of those prob­lems, the film­mak­ers come dan­ger­ously close to mak­ing a mock­ery of the very man they ap­pear to want to lion­ize. There is some good reg­gae and dub his­tory here, but the film­mak­ers don’t ad­e­quately give credit where credit is due. Perry is a reg­gae icon, al­beit a tor­tured one. But he was just one piece of the larger reg­gae-dub puz­zle, some­thing all in­volved in this pro­ject, in­clud­ing Perry, seem happy to al­most com­pletely ig­nore.

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