The Upsetter: The Life Of Lee Scratch Perry

The Upsetter: The Life Of Lee Scratch Perry


Reviewed by: George Williamson

Lee Scratch Perry is a legend. He was the man who elevated Bob Marley and the Wailers to superstardom, the man who invented reggae and dub, whose home made shanty studio - the Black Ark - was one of the most prolific in Kingston until he burned it down in a furious ganja fueled rampage. However a complete career meltdown in the mid-Eighties lead to his near disappearance and rumours of his death. Welcome to the world of The Upsetter.

The Upsetter starts as the story of a young man named Rainford Hugh Perry who, after a musical epiphany while breaking rocks as a construction worker, left his hometown of Kendal to find the bright lights of Kingston and break into the record industry. After working his way up through numerous jobs in other recording studios Perry was able start producing his own records with the group the Upsetters and, after a string of high profile releases, he was able to create The Black Ark studio at his house. There followed a golden period in which Perry worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Congos and many more famous reggae artists, instilling his own eccentric production values - lo-fi recording layered with expertly applied reverb, flange and other effects - to great success. But in the late Seventies things become a little muddled as the studio was flooded with drugs and booze. After a period of this, the studio burnt down - Perry claims to have done it himself, a cleansing ritual - and the Upsetter began to slide into a depression that lasted almost ten years. He re-emerged into the public eye in the Nineties, working in collaboration with other artists and on solo material. Now, at seventy, he lives a drug and alcohol free life in Switzerland with his second wife. He spends his time creating bizarre psychedelic paintings, producing new music and behaving in a quite insane fashion.

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The Life And Music Of Lee Scratch Perry is a good title; this is a canned history of Perry's life and also the formative years of reggae and dub music. Those who are well versed in this history will glean insights about the man, whereas those who're less well informed will enjoy the rough guide to the music even more; the film acts as a primer for the genre - there's lots of original footage of the artists involved, generally backed up by narration, or related music. The many interviews with Perry are the main strong point of the movie - his eccentricity is utterly compelling, and his story is one of the most important in 20th century music. His thick Jamaican accent and frequent use of religious references can sometimes make it hard to follow what he's speaking about, but his dialogue is thankfully subtitled, and usually makes sense.

Unfortunately the film is not without problems; as a documentary The Upsetter perhaps relies too heavily on Perry's personal recollections - when at times he was under the influence of vast quantities of ganja and booze. Interviews with other people from his life and career would make some elements of the story clearer, and more plausible. Also, while the first half of the film is mostly very coherent, the latter portion is jumbled and it's not clear how the timeline played out - it feels confused, although this was also the case with Perry himself. Still, Perry is such an interesting individual that most of these problems only make it a poor documentary. The subject never fails to fascinate.

The Upsetter is must see film for fans of Dub and Reggae who want to learn about the roots of the music as told by one of its forefathers, but it isn't a brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2008
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Documentary focussing on the Jamaican music producer.

Director: Ethan Higbee, Adam Bhala Lough

Writer: Ethan Higbee, Adam Bhala Lough

Year: 2008

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2008

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