Is there some unwritten rule that every ground-breaking musician must also have a screw loose? I don't mean to assert that Lee "Scratch" Perry is actually mentally deficient, but on the basis of the footage compiled in the documentary The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee "Scratch" Perry, it would be easy to conclude that something is not quite right with Mr. Perry.
One of the reasons I wanted to see this particular doc is because I hoped to learn more about Perry, oft described as a legendary musical figure. I first heard about him when he worked with The Clash to produce their version of Junior Marvin's "Police and Thieves" in the late 1970s, but as The Upsetter shows, Perry first rose to fame in the 1960s as the talented producer of dozens of ska records. Perry, who was born in a small town in Jamaica, credits his later success to a stint working on a construction crew building a highway; the rhythmic sound of rocks being smashed against one another made a deep impression on his musical soul. Eventually he got an entry-level job at a recording studio and worked his way up until he became a widely sought after producer.
The documentary is on firm ground as it establishes Perry's reputation, with a remarkable amount of video footage depicting the early days of his career. Perry explains that he wasn't satisfied with his success as a ska record producer, and so returned to his religious roots. Perry's inspired mixing of spirituality with ska led to the birth of reggae in the late 1960s.
Fathering a new style of music enabled Perry to enjoy true international stardom as both a singer and musician. His talent and increasing fame attracted many experienced musicians who wanted to benefit from his magic touch, including the young Bob Marley. Recognizing Marley's potential, Perry says he gladly took Marley under his wing and helped him to refine his musical approach.
After a few years, though, something went wrong in the relationship between Perry and Marley. Perry sold off rights in the UK without telling Marley or his band, The Wailers, creating a rift. That kind of behavior became commonplace: Perry did whatever he felt like doing, no matter the consequences. While Perry was riding high, that was accepted, perhaps even reinforcing his status as a maverick artist.
He experimented further with his work in the studio, at times eliminating vocals altogether in favor of a strong emphasis on the bass and drums, and adding thick layers of reverb. It was his own, budget-minded version of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound," but with a decidedly bent, rhythm-happy twist. In the process, he fathered yet another new style of music: dub.
Then things began to fall apart in Lee Perry's life. He had built a large compound where he and his family could live, as well as his own private studio, which he called The Black Ark. Meanwhile, Jamaica had become a war zone, with police and thieves battling each other and extorting money from the rich, including Perry. He wanted his home to be a place of refuge for like-minded rebels, and soon enough it was overrun with musicians making music and smoking ganja. With the group of musicians known as The Congos, he made what should have been his greatest album, but the record label rejected it as being too experimental. Soon after, Perry's wife left him and his studio mysteriously burned to the ground.
Surrounded by ashes, Perry's career swiftly declined and he fell into a years-long, alcohol-fueled depression.
Throughout the first half of the documentary, directors Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough do a good job of telling Perry's story, mainly in Perry's own words (subtitled in view of his thick accent). Perry has a richly complex manner of speaking, which can sound very much like some of his songs, and we get a strong sense of who he is.
Unfortunately, when Perry's life takes a nosedive, so does the film. Long excerpts from archival videos are featured in which Perry rambles incoherently about life, music, and spirituality. To be fair, perhaps someone who shares Perry's beliefs will happily nod along, glad for the extended speeches that express Perry's feelings in detail. To me, though, it felt like the film ground to a halt, only recovering near the end when Perry himself seems to be in a happier place.
I'm glad for the existence of The Upsetter, which endeavors to establish Lee "Scratch" Perry's rightful place in the musical hall of fame. Despite the excesses noted, I was sufficiently buoyed by the first half of the film to want to track down the man's music. And the second half of the film is nearly redeemed entirely by an acid encounter between Perry and a random tourist with unshakable beliefs.
"Scratch" is one of a kind. Judging by The Upsetter, that's probably a good thing.