Addicted to rockstone

By Kellie Magnus

The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry, directed by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough (95 minutes)

Lee "Scratch" PerryLee “Scratch” Perry in 2010. Photograph by Pieter Morlion, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

“I’d like you to meet a genius.” A clip from Carl Bradshaw’s introduction of Lee “Scratch” Perry on a BBC Channel 4 broadcast opens The Upsetter, a lively biopic that functions both as a documentary on Jamaican music and one of its seminal figures, and as a study of the fine line between genius and madness. Co-written and co-directed by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough, the film makes it clear from the opening credits that the story will be all Perry’s. Higbee and Lough’s narrative and direction serve merely as scaffolding, leaving Perry — through extensive interviews, performance footage, and generous clips of his music — to tell his colourful, controversial story himself.

Rainford Hugh Perry, son of a cane-cutter, left rural Hanover, Jamaica, at age twenty to make it in the music business in Kingston. In short order he rose from performing menial tasks for Kingston’s biggest producers — Coxone Dodd, Duke Reid, and Prince Buster — to recruiting artists, producing, and recording his own songs.

Perry was a musical pioneer, one of the first producers to use a sample on a record (a baby crying on his first hit, “People Funny Boy”, in 1968), and a master of the mixing board, laying sounds he recorded from nature, the television, and a variety of other sources into his tracks. A key architect of the birth of reggae, in the early 1970s he helped invent dub music, stripping down the instrumentals of his songs and emphasising the drum and bass. Perry would “toast” over these recordings, a habit that Jamaican immigrants took to the South Bronx, where hip-hop would later be born.

His impact on Jamaican music is profound in both quantity and quality. For five years, he turned out twenty songs a week from his homemade Black Ark studio, scoring hits for numerous Jamaican artists. And his influence shaped a young Bob Marley, for whom he wrote and produced several hits during their tempestuous on-and-off relationship. Internationally, he wrote and produced for artists including The Clash, Paul McCartney, Johnny Rotten, and Simply Red.

The Upsetter succeeds in chronicling these accomplishments, marrying a chronological narrative with Perry’s recollections and a spare yet effective visual assemblage of concert footage, music videos, and archival footage of Kingston’s music and social culture. There’s extensive coverage of Perry’s album art, and enough historical photos and video clips of reggae pioneers to satiate die-hard reggae fans. They will also appreciate the eyewitness account of the birth of reggae and dub, the inside track on Perry’s relationship with Marley and the Wailers — with whom he famously split in 1973 — and his unvarnished opinions on many of the other artists with whom he worked.

Greater still is the opportunity to hear Perry’s singular voice. An intuitive who describes himself as “addicted to rockstone,” and credits his start in music to hearing the vibrations in the rocks while building the road to Negril as a young man, Perry is by turns mystical, eccentric, and just plain mad. Whether describing his inspiration for creating dub as stripping away other elements of the music, so the audience could focus on “the heartbeat (the drum) and the brain (the bass)”; or explaining why his collaboration with Marley took off after the singer moved into his house — “There was so much message delivering that I alone could not take all the message. If he wasn’t there, nobody would hear all those messages” — Perry’s language and style in telling his story are as important as the story itself. That these first-person vignettes are often told with Perry garbed in elaborate outfits, including a feathered headdress and a fruit plate as a hat, add to the colour, yet pull the audience’s eyes back to the bleeding edge of his genius.

This is where The Upsetter is less successful. Its exploration of the thin line between Perry’s unquestionable creative genius and what can only be described as his madness happens at a respectful distance. A forty-five-year love affair with marijuana, and a similarly long history of alcohol abuse, provide the lowlights to Perry’s tale. In the 1980s, he burned down his Black Ark studio in what he describes as a cleansing ritual, and sank into a decade-long bout of drinking and depression, in which he alienated his friends, family, and music industry colleagues, and turned instead to painting. Yet these events are dealt with only cursorily. Perry is the only subject interviewed on camera; and the absence of commentary or explanation makes some of his behaviour and the sequence of events difficult to understand. Many of the first-person interviews on which the documentary relies were recorded while Perry was in clearly altered states: drug- and alcohol-fuelled rants producing torrents of words that make it difficult to understand him, but every once in a while an elemental truth that makes it impossible to ignore him.

Perhaps that is the filmmakers’ intention. Bradshaw invites the audience to meet a genius, not to understand one. In letting Perry tell his own story, without the weight of third-person analysis or corroboration, Higbee and Lough resist the urge to explain the inexplicable, leaving the audience with only the option of accepting Perry’s description of himself: “Words, words, words. I am words. I am paint. I am art. I am stone. I am perfect.”


This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2010

The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

Kellie Magnus is a Jamaican writer, publisher, and media consultant. She is the author of the “Little Lion” series of children’s books and of Caribbean Street Food: Jamaica (2009), and a director of Jackmandora, a children’s media company.