The Upsetter: The Life And Music Of Lee Scratch Perry
Screening at Rich Mix Cinema, London, February 6th 2009
The Upsetter: The Life & Music Of Lee Scratch Perry takes the cult of this legendary producer to the big screen with interesting if not entirely satisfactory results. Written and directed by Adam Bhala Lough and Ethan Higbee, it presents a one-sided, truncated version of the story told in David Katz’s biography People Funny Boy - through a collage of archive footage, vintage music, and some surprisingly poignant moments as the now sober and harmlessly eccentric Scratch looks back on his eventful life.
Perry enjoys considerable (some would say disproportionate) acclaim outside Jamaica compared to most of classic reggae’s key players. However, like Toots Hibbert, he still lives in the shadow of Bob Marley in terms of mainstream renown. There is a palpable desire in The Upsetter... to put Scratch on a par with Marley; rightly pointing out his role in what many would agree is the Wailers’ most vital and groundbreaking work. In one of the film’s more candid segments Perry admits to selling the group’s songs to Trojan without permission, before swiftly adding that without this unethical act they would never have enjoyed such popularity abroad.
Lough and Higbee are keen to market Perry to the kids of today. As well as the power behind Bob’s throne, he is credited as the inventor of reggae (possibly true) and father of hip hop (probably not). Predictably – as in Winstan Whitter’s Four Aces documentary Legacy In The Dust - the impact of punk gets more screen time than it deserves, although given the applause in the cinema when Perry ends one of his stream-of-consciousness monologues with “I am a punk”, it’s easy to see why. Likewise, less use could have been made of the overly earnest narration, ambient-by-numbers original score and subtitles. And, inevitably, there’s the odd minor error such as the Scratch produced cut of Natural Mystic being mis-dated to 1977.
On the plus side, it’s impossible to watch without being impressed by Perry’s records. We hear sprightly early 70s productions like People Funny Boy, crisp and percussive roots work with The Gatherers and, of course, his later sub-aquatic sound with Junior Delgado and The Congos. As his decline and exile play out, the focus shifts from the music to intimate, disquieting scenes shot in the wreckage of his Black Ark studio, and some very telling interviews where Lee blatantly turns on the nonsense to avoid personal disclosure, suggesting his “madness” is not all it seems.
And therein lies the film’s major flaw: across 90 minutes the notoriously guarded Perry gives the only insider’s viewpoint we hear. Had he been interspersed with recollections from musical contemporaries, enemies, family or friends, a more rounded portrait might have taken shape. That said, an official Perry doc was never going to give an even-handed account, and bringing the fascinating story of his rise, depression, and curious existence trading off his own legend to a wider audience can only be a good thing. The Upsetter… may suffer from the modern documentary’s tendency to overstate and simplify, but even a less than definitive look at this once great talent and enigmatic human being is worthy of your time.
Written by Angus Taylor