A Steve Marshall film
Streaming on Prime
Review by Ray Hogan
Wikipedia defines him as an inventor above all else.
It’s not only telling but correct
Lee “Scratch” Perry has been reggae music’s certified lunatic-genius since the late 1960s and is pretty-much universally heralded as the inventor as the sub-genre known as dub. As with other oversized personalities in the visionary halls of popular music, it is sometimes impossible to untangle the man from the misconception, the music from myth. Most genres have at least one such character. Funk has George Clinton, jazz has Sun Ra and so on.
Not surprisingly, “The Revelation of Lee Scratch Perry” doesn’t follow any kind of kind of documentary template or story arc. Producer Steve Marshall left a camera rolling when he and Perry were working on Perry’s 2010 disc of the same name at the artist’s studio in Switzerland (he has a tenuous relationship with his native Jamaica).
Seemingly random and senseless, with Perry spewing stream of consciousness verbiage to backing tracks, the film begins with pretty vague intentions. But don’t turn it off!
Like dub music itself, a form starts to take shape from the deconstruction. A word forms, is repeated, is tweaked into absurd varieties, is repeated again. Before long, viewers will be hypnotically in trance of Perry and his delivery system. The word “doctor” gradually morphs into the song title “Used to Drive a Tractor in Negrille.” No idea how his mind arrived at this, but by song’s end, we are glad it did.
So it goes for all 12 tracks that appeared on the CD version of “The Revelation of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry,” a disc that featured musical assistance from Clinton and Keith Richards, who aren’t seen nor mentioned in the film. There is interview footage of Perry stating the 12 tracks represent the 12 prophets. Pretty sure he meant apostles but…whatever… we mortals don’t question the madcap.
“I am the fearless tiger,” he states. “I have no fear. I don’t know what fear is.”
This is evident in “Freaky Michael,” about the late pop superstar Michael Jackson. A sample lyric: “Michael, where is your nose/Jacko, I never knew you were a paco.”
Fearless, for sure. Quite possibly insane, too. At one point he grabs the weather page of a newspaper and spontaneously creates a song out of the names of most of the United States, or some variation of. It’s called “Weatherman,” naturally.
It would be easy to write Perry off as an eccentric kook if his history in the formation of the music didn’t date back to Bob Marley and cut a straight line to the present. “My music is a spirit — clean and pure — fighting against impurity and fighting against the unclean,” he explains.
Now would also be a good time to mention, Perry swore off drinking and smoking decades ago.
It’s impossible to understand a musical mind such as Perry’s, in the same way we’ll never know what made a Bach, a Louis Armstrong or a Muddy Waters. If our brains are wired to receive what he’s transmitting, we are all the better for it. At 83-years-old, he’s been heralded as a musical inventor for more than 50 years. The fact that he has rarely sat still musically is a testament to the kind of searching, off-the-wall genius that merits attention. That he’s still here to share his lifelong adventure is something any serious music fan should get behind.
“Everything has its time, this time, that time, this cycle, that cycle, this period and and that period,” he exclaims. “This period we are going through now is Revelation.” Probably some lofty things to say about that. Except that he was speaking 10 years ago.