Scratching the surface
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.