Reggae innovator and “dub” music creator Lee “Scratch” Perry is a legend in music circles, having acted as a producer for the likes of Bob Marley and Johnny Rotten, but his name remains something less than household among casual fans. Filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough aim to rectify this with “The Upsetter,” a fairly thorough chronicle of Perry’s life and career.
Born Ranford Hugh Perry in Jamaica in 1936, it was as a young man driving a tractor to complete the Negril Highway that he “heard the spirit of the stone” and turned his attention to music. Settling in Kingston, he began producing ska bands like the Gatherers until some of his contemporaries, all too willing to exploit Perry’s “country boy” naiveté, ran him out of town. Perry returned to his first love, reggae, and was soon producing (and writing music for) Bob Marley.
The relationship with the Wailers continued into the 70s, when they split up after Perry sold the rights to some of their earlier music. One also wonders if this could be a result of Perry’s personality, which can be charitably described as “eccentric.” The man smokes inhuman amounts of weed, as any good Rasta should, yet other behaviors depicted in the movie – like his manic religious proclamations, incoherent songs, and the fact that he burned down his famous home studio because of evil spirits – raise the question of mental illness. I realize that artistic genius is often coupled with insanity, but the topic is skirted a bit here, though.
While “The Upsetter” will certainly bring wider recognition to Perry, it really only scratched the surface. Archival footage of the man is, understandably, rare, but the film skips much of the last 30 years. To be fair, Perry does seem far more subdued in the recent interviews he gives to Higbee and Lough, and admits spending the bulk of the 80s in an alcoholic haze, so perhaps there just wasn’t anything to report. As it stands, “The Upsetter” ends up leaving us wanting a great deal more information about its subject.
In closing, I’d like to quote – in its entirety – the handwritten fax sent by Perry himself to the filmmakers before the movie’s premiere at SXSW. I can’t sum the man up much better than this:
“Hallo to you my Peeples out there this is my movie of the Past AND the Present
IN GOD – I n I must
IN GOD – I n I trust
IN GOD – I n I cuss
And turn vampire’s Government into Ashis and Dust
God Bless it
Lee $cratch Perry Vi$$ions
God – is a spirit
God – is – pure
God – is shure
God – cant – dead
God – cant Beg Bread
God – canot Died
God canot Lie
God Loveth vampires Dead”
All righty then.