The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee "Scratch" Perry
There’s hardly a personality in the music universe that is as innovative, eccentric and plain weird as Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Jamaica-bred artist who produced Bob Marley’s earliest records yet somehow managed to stay out of the public’s eye over the years. Thankfully, co-director Adam Bhala Lough, who directed the Lil Wayne documentary The Carter, goes a long way to pull back the veil of mystique and showcase Perry, who, at 75, still preserves his rude boy antics at his home in frigid Switzerland. Throughout The Upsetter, as Perry fan Benicio Del Toro narrates, it becomes clear that the filmmakers intended the documentary to pay homage to the erratic musician on his terms – and they largely succeed.
The Upsetter takes the audience to the streets of Kingston using grainy vintage video footage to capture Perry as a young man who quickly establishes himself as a musical genius among his peers. Perry’s first single, “People Funny Boy,” released in 1968, was a diss towards a studio owner, helped define the sound of reggae music. It’s clear from this point that Perry was influential in reggae and dub music’s development, as well as hip-hop, which would follow. After all, Kanye West would go on to sample Perry-produced track “Chase the Devil” by Max Romeo on The Black Album’s “Lucifer.”
No matter how prolific or influential, The Upsetter paints Perry as a person with more than his share of demons. The producer admits to burning down his own home studio, the Black Ark, but the reasons are very vague. As the film only uses interviews with Perry himself, it’s difficult to determine what exactly motivated him to do this. The producer’s thick patois and abstract speech make it even more difficult. The years after the Black Ark’s burning and Perry’s reestablishment in London were his dark period, which the filmmakers capture well, with a brooding soundtrack that sets the mood.
Perry’s body of work over his four decades making music is immense, and it would seem that the stories behind many of his key collaborations – Bob Marley, Beastie Boys, Paul McCartney – could spawn separate documentaries. The Upsetter filmmakers, however, chose to cover Perry’s entire life, and fast-forward through many of the intriguing interesting parts, such as Marley’s relationship with Perry. The Upsetter’s footage in Perry’s Switzerland abode, where he is incessantly burning a fire in his backyard, gets somewhat dull and the viewer is almost subjected to watching Perry and wondering about his sanity. This takes away from the musical genius and makes Perry all too human.
If documentaries are only as interesting as their subjects, it doesn’t get much better than The Upsetter. The film showcases Perry’s legacy and defines him as an influential artist to Reggae, Dub and beyond. With his idiosyncracies, The Upsetter takes his rightful place in the pantheon of legends.