The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee "Scratch" Perry, which opens at Filmbar this week, is part chronicle Perry's life, and part history of Reggae and Dub music (both pioneered by Scratch).
Though Perry's words are thickly slurred, often-subtitled, and clouded in a thick, low cloud of "smoke," his message is simple: the music is immortal, and not much else matters.
Perry was raised in the ghettos of rural Jamaica. He says he first heard drums in the sounds of the rocks and cymbals ringing in the Jamaican wind. From these raw sounds Scratch pioneered Reggae music as it's known today.
Scratch's growing acclaim in Jamaica caught the attention of a a young Bob Marley, and a collaboration was born. Marley later said their work together "cast out the ghosts," and led to a mutual growth in spirituality.
The two worked together until Scratch sold the rights to Marley's music to a major music label (simultaneously rocketing Marley to international fame, but severing their relationship).
Flush with success, Scratch built his own recording studio (Black Ark Studio) and sprouted partnerships with musicians including The Clash, Paul McCartney, The Congos, Johnny Rotten, Robert Palmer, and Simply Red.
But financial success brought unexpected problems -- Jamaican gangsters and police extorted money from Perry and threatened his life. Despite surrounding chaos, the music continued, and the prolific artist recorded almost 20 songs per week, with hundreds of artists, for more than 5 years.
After a short-lived relationship with The Congos and Black Ark Studios (which burned down in 1983), Scratch moved to Europe where he fell hard for alcohol and a variety of drugs, but his inspiration and innovation continued.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Today, Scratch is in his 70s, and he continues to push boundaries, create original music, and collaborate with modern pop artists (including works with the Beastie Boys) and tour the world.
The Upsetter is narrated by Benicio Del Toro, and presented through archival footage and interviews with the idiosyncratic musician. The film provides a direct view through the eyes of a true music pioneer and visionary, and is an unexpected and rare view into the history of Reggae, punk, and hip hop music.