When filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough came into Lee Scratch Perry’s life he had already squelched the dreams of other documentarians wanting to make a movie about him. But there was something about that time, not long after the turn of the century, which allowed Perry to open up and receive Higbee and Lough with almost complete openness. The resulting documentary The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry, is an absorbingly intense, yet highly informative spiritual journey.
For Higbee and Lough, longtime friends and collaborators (both were students at NYU), the making of The Upsetter has been a long ride of determination and perseverance, all in the name of true devotion to Lee Perry. Ahead of their collector’s edition DVD launch (which you can find HERE on May 15), I had a chat with both of the directors. In speaking with them I learned that this documentary was just the gateway to one’s own discovery of just who Lee Scratch Perry is, and this was their intention. Even so, this documentary of dedication to a legend and his raw artistry, however layered, is enough to satiate the most devoted Lee Scratch Perry fan.
The Upsetter is an uninhibited and candid telling of the life of Lee Scratch Perry, told mostly by Perry himself (and with an occasional narration by Benicio Del Toro). The movie’s first image of Perry starts with a wide shot showing a shirtless Perry from afar spinning and flailing his arms. He’s giving an impromptu sermon to himself, it seems at first, but then as the camera pulls in he becomes aware of it, only enough to adjust his proximity to it, and then he keeps going in his own world. Without context or explanation we’ve just been given about the most formal introduction one can get to Lee “Scratch” Perry. It’s not clear, despite the subtitles, what he’s been saying during this scene—he appears to be high, or mad, or both—but then he suddenly stops, smiles at the camera, and says “Hi! Good evening.” And just as you want to be directly engaged by him some more, the opening sequence fades to a title card.
Not your typical setting of a talking head, Perry sits in an undefined space (which we later find out is his home’s studio), behind him the once off-white walls are covered in graffiti with random words and shapes. Sometimes he sits on a stool wearing a colorful feathered head dress, other times he’s at a table with pictures splayed across it, and often his surroundings draw your attention away from the man himself, but one quickly comes to realize the surroundings and the man are inextricably linked.
Lee starts out by talking about his childhood and his parents, namely his parents’ split and what he remembers about being with both parents in their separate worlds. Fast forward to Lee Perry as a young adult working as a tractor driver in Negril. Perry recalls his first acquaintance with the rhythms that would define his life’s work. “It was when I was working with the rock I pick up those sonic vibrations.” Lee recalls. “And I hear the rock, when you throw the rock it sounds just like when you hear the thunder roll. I’m sure that’s where everything is coming from…I learned everything from stone.”
Lee went from tractor driver to a janitor at emerging music studios, then worked his way up as a promoter, then a ghostwriter, and finally a producer. His ear for good music, and better still his talent for making good music, was quickly recognized throughout Jamaica’s music industry. During the first half of the film, we get a classic documentary retelling of Perry’s rise to prolificacy at a young age by helping to shape reggae music in its early years. As the film moves toward his dissolved relationship with Bob Marley and The Wailers, civil unrest in Jamaica, and the rise and fall of his Black Ark studio, the film takes on a rawer, more naked feel with, sometimes uncomfortable, long takes. This would mark Perry’s exodus from Jamaica to Europe where his music was catching on with such people as The Clash, Paul McCartney, and the burgeoning punk scene.
While viewing The Upsetter I found it extraordinary to watch the peaks and valleys of the life of a man whose impact to several music genres—such as hip hop, electronic, punk and of course the genre he pioneered, dub—has become quite obscure to many. With care, love, and respect Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough have crafted a film of devotion that any lover of film or music, and new and old devotees to Perry will find rewarding.
In the thick of their theatrical tour, the guys took some time out of their exhausting schedules to talk about the making of The Upsetter, their relationship with the legend behind the film, being a true independent documentarian, and their upcoming projects.
SJ: Talk about your first meeting with Lee Scratch Perry.
EH: I went to London in 2005 and met him at a Chinese restaurant where he was having like a mini family reunion with his daughter by a British woman, and he and his Swiss wife Mireille and their children. It was pretty funny, and awkward, and amazing to sit next to him. I’m like the only guy at the table that’s not in his family and they’re having this family reunion at a Chinese restaurant at like three in the morning after he’s performed in London.
So when I got back I told him what I wanted to do and he was cool, he was like “yeah let’s do it.” So I told him I’d come to Switzerland in two months and start filming. And that was that really. We got to know each other, and we spent like two weeks with him out there. And he’s like family now, I think of him as a family member, and he’s a really good friend, and he’s about the most creatively original person I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
ABL: When I first met him I think I was more surprised at how normal he was. He displays a lot of eccentric qualities, but he’s really just a very normal dad. He watches reality TV with his kids, and eats spaghetti, and he’s very much a normal guy. So I guess that’s what surprised me about him.
I guess we were a little bit nervous, when we first started shooting, we were nervous that he was going to throw us out. We’d heard a lot of stories from various people about how they tried to interview him and shoot photos of him, and he threw them out. And we thought he was going to do the same thing with us, so the first day we were definitely walking on eggshells, and being polite, and not trying to offend him. We were scared that that mad man was going to come out, but it ended up being quite the opposite. And part of it is because we caught him at a really good time in his life when he was ready to sit down and tell his story. So he was very welcoming to us, and he liked us, he was very hospitable, and it became the opposite experience from what everyone told us it was going to be.
SJ: What story did you set out to tell, and how did that change over time?
ABL: The plan was really just to tell his life story, and to focus on the key moments of his life story. There were some very important moments in his life that he didn’t want to talk about, or would have preferred to have glanced over and pretend they didn’t really happen. A good example of that is his relationship with Mad Professor, but he wasn’t included in the movie because Lee didn’t want to talk about him.
And there were moments he was very forthcoming about that were really fascinating that no one really knew about. Like especially the first ten years of his life, which he hadn’t really talked about, and all of a sudden he starts remembering these things about his relationship with his father, how his parents split up, and working in the sugar field with his mother. The framework for our story was also quite defined by what he wanted to tell us.
SJ: Was Mr. Perry open to your interpretation of his story, or was he active in shaping the story with you guys?
ABL: The first time we showed him the film, it was like a rough cut, the only comment he made was “this is going to be massive!” He loved it. He’s never made a single comment about wanting to change anything. He had things that he wanted to add that wasn’t possible. Like he asked us to take a scene from The Ten Commandments where Moses is parting the Red Sea and insert it in the film somewhere.
And in San Francisco he had a DVD of this Disney movie called Ice Age, and he was like watching it on this portable TV. Like the whole time we were in San Francisco he would walk around watching this movie, he was like obsessed with this movie Ice Age, and he asked us to put scenes from Ice Age in The Upsetter. And I was like “I don’t know if that’s such a great idea. I’m not really trying to go clear that with Disney.”
SJ: You’ve been touring this film all around the world; what have you learned or discovered from talking to people about Lee Scratch Perry or your documentary as a whole?
ABL: I was surprised at how much positive reactions I’ve been getting from DJs, like hip hop, house and electronica, who have said that they’ve found the movie extremely inspiring. I’ve always thought that musicians, singers, and producers were going to find it interesting, but the DJs seem to really dig it. And I guess it’s because there are some cool, rare songs in there that they can spin, but also the format of the film and the cut…there’s just something that DJs are really drawn to.
SJ: What kinds of people have come to see your film?
ABL: In Harlem this girl came up to me, like very young, probably seventeen or eighteen, and she was like “Lee Scratch Perry’s rants are better than Charlie Sheen’s”. And that really put it all into perspective for me, and I laughed but she was being serious, she was trying to give the film a compliment. I really laughed hard, like this is really great. Every generation has like their own litmus test, and comparing Lee to Charlie Sheen is fascinating to me. That’s how they see the film, that’s the paradigm in which they see The Upsetter, like there’s this mad man saying crazy shit but some of it is maybe a little bit true. Every generation has seen Lee in a different way, and that’s the kind of thing that gets me excited and makes me proud of making this film.
EH: You know reggae fans and people in the know, know Lee Perry. But people who listen to Beastie Boys, or love Jay-Z, Pharrell, Kanye, Paul McCartney, The Clash, or punk music they don’t know that you have to keep going back and you’ll land on Lee Perry’s doorstep at the Black Ark studio in Kingston in the ‘70’s. He’s the originator, and everyone sought him out, and not many people know that.
I’d say about half the people who’s come to these screenings have never heard of Lee Perry and they’re friend brought them, or they read an article. It’s reggae fans, Lee Perry fans, and music fans, but then it’s also just everyday folks. We just had a screening in Portland, Maine, I’m actually from Maine, and it was packed, and they’d never even heard of this guy before.
ABL: It’s an interesting variety. It depends on where you are in the country, or the world. Like in Harlem there were a good amount of Jamaicans and Rastafarians. And there’s always some old deadheads, like some old Grateful Dead and Phish fans, you know like your typical stoner. There’s always a large quantity of young people who want to see something new and interesting, and they maybe have heard of Lee through his work with Andrew WK or Beastie Boys.
It’s been nothing from love from the Jamaican community. The only criticism we get comes from the non-Jamaican reggae fans, like the white reggae fans that are over fifty. They’ll come and get like all salty after the screening, like “Why didn’t you put so and so in the film!?”, “How can you forget such and such band!?” But from everyone else it’s been all love.
SJ: How has the reception been in worldwide?
EH: Our goal is to do 100 cities or states and we’re closing on sixty right now. We’re taking it worldwide. We’re going to Australia next, then we’re going to Japan, then we’re going to Brazil, then South Africa. We’re just trying to bring it to whoever wants it. We’re going to Europe—France, the UK—, to the middle-east, we’re going to Israel. Lee Perry’s global, it’s worldwide, he’s bigger in Brazil than he is in the US. I consider the US one of the smallest markets [for this film]. So we’re very excited about the possibilities. And it’s about letting people see this amazing guy that not many people know about. It’s about spreading the word about Lee “Scratch” Perry and his impact on modern art and music. That’s been my goal from day one.
SJ: Talk about your plans for distribution.
EH: We’ve been doing it all ourselves, like literally. We’re in forty theaters right now and I called every single one of those theaters, and asked all the questions. We’re doing it ourselves, the filmmakers are calling up the theater like “hey, you want this movie?” All of these indie filmmakers who think they’re making an independent film with twenty million dollars and complaining about shit. It’s like, well we made this movie in our bedroom and we’re distributing it from our bedroom, you can’t get any more “do-it-yourself” than that.
SJ: Why did you go this route as oppose to traditional distribution channels?
EH: Those traditional channels weren’t open to us and they really never have been. I mean people wanted to buy the film and distribute it, but I’ve seen time and time again a film gets shelved on the shelf at an independent distribution company and they don’t get the attention they need. And the filmmakers get screwed and they basically give away their movie for free, and over my dead body will that happen with this movie. We turned down offer after offer, because in the long run if you’re willing to put in the work you can make your money back, and maybe make a profit on the movie.
SJ: You’ve had three versions of this documentary; why did you settle on this version?
EH: Really the film is just a jumping off point. We only had 90 minutes [to tell his story]. How can you do that with a 75 year old man who’s produced thousands of pieces of work? We left out some of his songs, we left out his relationship with Mad Professor, we left out going to Babylon, we left out tons of stuff. I think about it every day and say “Wow! How did that not make it in there?” You know, our first cut was six hours, but we had to get it down to 90 minutes.
The first half of the film is more traditional documentary style: who, what, where, and when. And then second half was getting more into his spiritual side, and that was a conscious artistic decision we had to make, and that’s what we wanted from the start. And some people get a little lost because we take you on a trip, we take you on a ganja induced spiritual journey with Lee and his religious views. Some people are into it, some are not. We let scenes play, we’re not afraid to let a scene play out. We felt like that showed where Lee was coming from, where his art is coming from.
Adam Bhala Lough’s upcoming feature Splatter Sisters:
SJ: What’s up with Splatter Sisters?
ABL: Well, we’re planning a fall shoot in southern California. I’ve looking for an actress to play this other role [alongside Rachel Evan Woods] for quite a long time, like we’ve seen over a hundred different people. But I’m continuing the search, and other than that I’m just waiting for the green light.
SJ: What is Splatter Sisters about?
ABL: It’s a ‘serial-killing lovers on the run’ film, about two young drifter girls who run away from home and they end up falling under the wing of this death metal singer [Marilyn Manson], who puts them under his spell and sends them on a killing spree across southern California murdering teenage boys under the name of romantic love. It’s kind of a next generation update on Natural Born Killers, and heavily inspired by Badlands. Ed Pressman, the producer of Badlands, is also producing this. It’s a horror film, but it also has elements of a road movie, and a twisted love story.
SJ: That’s quite a departure from your previous work, what inspired you to do this?
ABL: I spent five years, almost, writing this script and I think a big part of it was inspired by Natural Born Killers. I love the 'serial-killing lovers on the run' story. I think there’s one for each generation, I think they resonate with a generation, in a way they almost define a generation and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a great one, so I think all of that was an inspiration for me in crafting this tale. I was really looking for a departure from what I was doing in the past, wanting to try something new, but everyone who’s read the script says that’s it’s still undeniably my voice, it’s still just raw and real.
Ethan Higbee’s upcoming feature documentary Basedworld:
SJ: I’ve read that you have an upcoming documentary about rapper Lil B; where did this idea come from?
EH: I’ve worked with him a little bit, I produced a song for him. I produce music as well, I’ve scored a lot of Adam’s films, and I scored the Lil Wayne movie [The Carter]. So I’m coming at this with a music background originally, that’s why I’m into Lee Perry of course. I struck up a relationship with Lil B over Myspace and I produced a beat for him. Then I just started learning about him and his life and, you know, this kid is only 21 years old but he’s wise beyond his years. He’s created an amazing catalog of music. The movie is about his fans, his life, his message, and everything he’s been through, which is coming to a climax right now.
Look for upcoming theatrical tour dates for The Upsetter HERE.
(photo: UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot)