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Film

Chanting Down Babylon

By Douglas Heselgrave
Published July 10, 2008

He might be just over five feet tall, but producer, singer and roots messenger Lee “Scratch” Perry casts a profoundly huge shadow over Jamaican music and culture. For that reason alone, it’s amazing to consider how long fans have been waiting for a film like The Upsetter to come around.

Although Perry has appeared in literally miles of film footage over the years, almost all of it tends to capture only one dimension of his life and genius. Thankfully, filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough, who obviously had a lot of fun paying tribute to Perry’s self-constructed “Upsetter” persona, manage to transcend the myth with a compelling visual portrait of a deep thinker and serious artist.

 

Born in 1936, Perry’s contributions to the world of music and art are truly legendary. From helping Bob Marley to “discover his voice” (and producing what many feel are Marley’s best performances) to almost single-handedly creating the remix form known as the dub style (with partner-incrime Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock), his resumé reads like a sacred scroll of reggae history. The Upsetter traces Perry’s life from his early days as a child in rural Jamaica through to the here and now, making the point that for all his past achievements,this is a story that’s still unfolding.

 

The man they call Scratch—a nickname he picked up after cutting his first single, “Chicken Scratch,” in 1961—has made a career out of confounding journalists with a defiant approach that rivals Bob Dylan’s interviews from the mid-’60s, back when Dylan regularly raised press conferences to the level of performance art. Until now, most of Perry’s interviews—or “outerviews,” as he prefers to call them—have consisted of little more than stream of consciousness rants. By retreating into surrealistic sermons and metaphors, the truth and depth of what he says to the press often gets obscured by an endless stream of absurd verbal riffs, but remarkably, Higbee and Lough somehow get Scratch to relax and drop out of character, creating a portrait that illuminates him in a way never before captured on film.

 

The Upsetter is a brilliant study in contrasts. Clearly, the juxtaposition between images and words is one that Scratch revels in, and that the directors worked hard to portray. And he clearly loves being in front of the camera—it’s hard to imagine any other septuagenarian choosing to sit for an interview<