Factory 25 on OVID: Our Review of ‘The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry’

Posted in What's Streaming? by - February 26, 2024
Factory 25 on OVID: Our Review of ‘The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry’

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry came into this world as Rainford Hugh Perry and spent his early adult life in Jamaica. One day, while working in construction in his hometown in Kendal, he had a music epiphany. That epiphany was enough for him to leave Kendal, quit his job, and work as a music producer. That work got him to brush shoulders with musical artists both in Jamaica and across the Atlantic Ocean. He gave Bob Marley the confidence to play the guitar and saw an intersection with his struggles with that of The Clash. But of course, those achievements may not be enough in a world where institutional and personal problems weigh on him. The documentary about his life, Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough’s The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry, covers all this, cliches and all.

Music *does* help unite the world in some capacity, and this documentary reinforces that. In reinforcing this message it uses the good old mix of archive footage and interviews. Perry’s voice overs contextualise the footage of working class white Britons yelling at cops, which is part of the doc’s macro approach. It is, however, odd to see when the doc steps in and when it doesn’t. The latter is specifically conspicuous as it shows punk figures wearing shirts with swastikas, without comment. The half context here is specifically wild knowing that Bhala Lough directed two documentaries about the alt-right later in his career. Accompanying this image is Perry discussing how he backed off punk. Depending on the viewer, the half context in The Upsetter may or may not be enough, but I’ll allow it.

The Upsetter, again, provides half of the context that a new Perry fan needs. It feels, then, like there’s just as much to learn here as one can while listening to his songs on SoundCloud. What proceeds is something that may make this documentary more of an acquired taste. Perry’s career may have had his share of high profile releases but that doesn’t stop him from experiencing police harassment. If anything, fame exacerbates that harassment, one that he sings about in ‘Police and Thieves’. The harassment, as it does, bears down on his mental health, an experience that the documentary depicts with brutal honesty. Honesty, for some viewers, may be a nice word, as it depicts sequences where all Perry does is go on ganja and rum fueled rambles.

Other troubles rain down on Perry, as The Upsetter shows, troubles that may break him. The documentary exposes his vulnerability after Marley’s death, as he goes off on the ‘parasites’ both men had to stave off. Thankfully, Perry has the chance to heal, and moving to Zurich became a positive change. The documentary, then, depicts his later years, doing world tours. He eventually meets a new generation of musicians like The Beastie Boys and Eve. Although it sticks to a formula, the documentary experiments a little bit. Like when it uses Perry and the Upsetters’ music to give its third act a cathartic feel. There are also scenes here like an argument in a souvenir store. But scenes liek those and Benicio del Toro’s narration make this stand out from other music docs. Finally, a good Bhala Lough film.

Watch The Upsetter on OVID.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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