The Upsetter

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Film Brief
Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival


EDINBURGH, Scotland -- It should be impossible to make a dull documentary on a subject so colorfully controversial, instinctively transgressive and consistently remarkable as Lee 'Scratch' Perry, the 72-year-old Jamaican musician/writer/producer who pioneered reggae and dub in the 1960s, and whose invention of “sampling” paved the way for hip-hop and rap. Directors Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough come pretty close, however, with "The Upsetter," their hagiographic tribute taking an incongruously by-the-numbers, safe-hands approach to a career defined by innovation and risk.

The uneven results provide a useful introduction to a seminal and still underappreciated figure. This is basically TV and DVD fare whose big-screen opportunities lie at film-festivals favorably disposed to music-biz docs.

The filmmakers have clearly enjoyed extended and intimate access to the gregarious Perry, and they alternate between terrific archive footage the from past six decades and specially-recorded interview material. His patois English subtitled throughout (even when it's perfectly intelligible), the ageless Perry's engaging, shamelessly self-aggrandizing charisma elevates what's evidently the “authorized” version of an astonishing rags-to-riches life-story.

But "The Upsetter" (one of Perry's numerous aliases, also the title of a 1969 LP) if anything gives the great man too much of a soap-box. His extended, often-nonsensical ramblings occasionally threaten to derail proceedings in the second half, eating up precious time that might more profitably have been used by playing further examples of his key recordings in full, or perhaps given over to a more objective, balanced and contextualized analysis of his achievements.

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