Words by Jesse Serwer
Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough’s The Upsetter is nothing like the run-of-the-mill artist documentaries you see on TV. The movie is all Lee “Scratch” Perry from start to finish, mixing rare ’70s and ’80s footage of the mystical Jamaican producer with illuminating present-day conversations. Co-directors Higbee and Bhala Lough (who were behind the Lil Wayne doc The Carter) followed the mad scientist at home in Switzerland and on tour, capturing him in both intimate and bizarre scenes (often one and the same), cross-country skiing with his wife and verbally jousting with a smarmy Canadian tourist in a San Francisco gift shop. The result is an appropriately offbeat look at the genius responsible for the development of reggae and dub, not to mention the first record with a sample. We spoke with the directorial duo about earning the elusive Perry’s trust, his obsessive spraypainting and fire-setting, and the parallels between Scratch and the eccentric rapper Lil B. Read on and catch The Upsetter on its current tour of U.S. theaters (its at New York’s Maysles Institute and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the coming weeks), or when it drops on DVD this summer.
LargeUp: I imagine you weren’t the first people to attempt to make a movie with Lee Perry. How did you go about gaining his participation?
Ethan Higbee: It took a while. When I first started trying to reach him, everyone said it’s nearly impossible, people have tried to make this movie, you’ll never get access to him and he’ll never want to do it. I was definitely warned. I just made sure I did all my research and talked to everyone I could and came prepared for any possibilities. I reached out to Mick Sleeper, who runs Upsetter.net, a Lee Perry resource. He put me in touch with David Katz, the author of People Funny Boy. David said you need to come with cash money in hand because that is the only thing that speaks to Mrs. Perry… and Mr. Perry. After a couple years, I met Lee in London at a Chinese restaurant. It was a pretty interesting experience, because it was a family reunion. Lee was there with his daughter from a British woman and all his Swiss children and his wife’s Swiss children. I was the only one who wasn’t part of his family there. I sat next to Lee for hours and told him what we wanted to do, and he was down from the start. A couple months later, we were out in Switzerland for two weeks with a crew. Everything happened perfectly, it just took a couple years.
Adam Bhala Lough: We were just ourselves. We weren’t there with some ulterior motive. He saw that right away and trusted our motivations. I think he can see when people have shady motivations. He has X-ray vision like that. He saw us right away as two genuine filmmakers who wanted to tell his story to educate the youth.
LU: How did you get all the vintage footage you used? I don’t think the movie would have worked as well without it..
EH: There’s some clips–the footage where the Black Ark is still intact–licensed from Deep Roots Music by Michael Wellington and Howard Johnson. The classic footage of him wearing the jogging shorts and the tanktop behind the mixing board, that’s all from Jeremy Marre’s Roots Rock Reggae. The stuff with him where his shirt’s off and he’s spinning around and chanting, no one’s ever seen. It’s from Lee’s personal archive. It was part of a film I think Chris Blackwell tried to make back in the day on Bob Marley. It was never made. We tried to hunt down the master tape but it doesn’t exist. That’s why it’s so grainy but we kinda like that–hey, this is Lee Perry’s VHS tape. That was the most compelling stuff that I saw doing the research, and we based the film around that. We thought it captured Lee at a pivotal point in his life, after he’d burned down the studio and driven everybody away from him. His career was in flux, he was going mad. We felt that footage really captured that tension in his life, and no one had seen it before. It also showed Lee Perry doing the same things he’s doing now. He’s painting…
LU: Setting fires…
EH: Speaking Bible verses… He’s been doing the same thing for 40 years. Everyone’s like, “Oh, he’s crazy.” Well, he’s pretty spot on with what he’s doing. Nothing’s really changed. If you decipher what he’s saying, it’s really beautiful. I think the last scene in our film really exemplifies how he’s just a magician with words. If you think you can out-word Lee Perry, you have something coming to you. We put that in [to show] in the current day, he’s still sharp as a nail.
LU: Did you follow him a lot outside of Switzerland? Were there other encounters like that?
EH: Yeah. There’s a little montage in the beginning of the film where you see Lee with a big block of ice and he’s walking into this Catholic monastery in the town he lives in. It’s like a pilgrimage spot for Catholics. We totally got kicked out of there. They did not like us. We met him up in Hollywood, in San Francisco, London. Whenever we had a bit of budget, we’d meet Lee and hang for a weekend, or do a whole tour with him. It was great fun.
LU: He was lighting a lot of fires. Was that something he was doing spontaneously?
ABL: He would actually tell us when we were wrapping up, before you come in tomorrow, can you pick me up some petrol? He wouldn’t tell us what he was going to do, he’d just ask us to buy petrol. Next thing you know he was lighting fires. It was pretty wild.
LU: Lee is the only person who talks or is interviewed in the film. How come?
EH: We did a lot of interviews. The original goal was to just interview Lee. But then we said let’s get some others just in case. We probably interviewed about 20 different people around the world. Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys. It just started looking like a TV music doc whenever you put somebody’s head in there. And we had all this amazing, artistic footage. We went and got this other stuff for the security of it all but we made the decision in the editing room that it’d be spoiling it. I’m sick of that style of documentary, honestly—the talking head documentary is just everywhere. We’ve gotten a lot of criticism for it from some of the music nerds. Hey, how come you didn’t have this or that in there? I’m really glad we don’t have talking head interviews. You have full immersion into Lee Perry, and that’s the way we wanted it. We don’t even have talking heads on the DVD extras. It’s just more Lee. If you need some white musician to justify Lee Perry’s greatness to you, this movie is not for you then. Take a hike.
ABL: The initial cut of the film was six hours, and it was just him. To get it down to 90 minutes was one of the hardest parts. The idea of putting more people in there talking about him seemed ridiculous when we had him saying so many great things, telling his own life story. He’s still alive. A lot of those films you see people talking about somebody ’cause they’re unable to tell their story. He was able to so we let him tell it.
LU: There’s a surreal aspect that reminds me of another great reggae movie, Land of Look Behind.
EH: That’s insane. We actually have some of that footage in the movie—the Bob Marley funeral procession. That’s one of my favorite movies ever. I’ve been talking about this forever but I want to do a Land of Look Behind redux but in Sri Lanka. I’ve spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka. I made a documentary over there when I was in college, and actually lived there when I was little.
LU: Did you get a sense of what Lee Perry’s life is like in Switzerland? Is it normal?
EH: It’s pretty domestic. He’s a dad. He paints all day. He goes down to his studio and does collage art, and writes. He’s got a laptop filled with probably 60,000 pages and I’m not even joking. Books and books of the most epic poetry you’ve ever read, and they’re his secrets. If you sit down and read it, it’s so phenomenal. Hopefully one day a massive book of some of his poetry will come out. He’s just so real and so true to his art. He’s not doing it for anyone else. He’s just releasing all day long. When he’s not doing that he’s watching TV, or going to the grocery store with [his wife] Mireille, or buying more paint. Or he’s going somewhere to record an album with somebody or he records down in his garage. I actually recorded with him. I play in a band International Friends, me and my buddy Sebastian, and we do a lot of movie scores and remixes. We were approached by Santigold’s people to remix two songs for this dub album and have Lee jump on the tracks. They’re dope songs but they’re just sitting there. The project fell apart.
LU: How did you get Benicio Del Toro to narrate?
EH: He’s a super fan of Lee. An acquaintance told me that Benicio had gotten him into Lee Perry. I was like, “no shit.” I wanted him from jump. I respect his work. We’re actually going to present the film together and do some Q&As this summer. He was involved in helping edit and rewording some stuff.
LU: Ethan, you’re working on a documentary about Lil B called BASED WORLD. What parallels do you see between him and Lee Perry?
EH: There’s a lot of parallels. I’ve been working on the Lil B project for the last four years. We’ve been putting out his music on our label here, Permanent Marks, which actually produced the Lee Perry film. I met B four years ago, through Myspace. We did a track together and I got to know him. He had this whole “Based” lifestyle and mantra. I wanted to capture that. B and Lee are artists in the purest sense—they’re very spontaneous in their delivery. Brandon’s 21 and wise beyond his years. Like Lee, he’ll work 20 hours a day, writing raps or making beats and he’s on Twitter all day long. If he hasn’t been on Twitter in a minute, he starts freaking out. He has to constantly reach out to his fans. That’s part of the reason he’s becoming so popular. He will write you back. He’ll outlast you. Same with Lee—they’ll outlast anybody. I escorted this Rolling Stone journalist to Switzerland. Lee definitely didn’t want the dude there, and I think was pissed I brought him along. Lee started spraypainting this whole room, and it was becoming so fumed out in there that you couldn’t breathe. The journalist said, “I can’t take it, what’s going on?” and I said, “Dude, he’s testing you right now. He’s trying to outlast you. You have to stay and grin and bear it.” B will do that with his fans. After one of his shows, he’ll talk to every one of his fans until there’s nobody left. They’ve got amazing amounts of stamina.
LU: Has Lee seen the movie? What was his impression?
ABL: Yeah. He didn’t give us any feedback. He loved the film. The only thing he said is “massive.” He didn’t have any comments or ask us to take anything out.