Tuesday 2 February 2016

Mountain high: "Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise"

He cuts a remarkable figure, this Lee Perry fellow: the beard dyed various shades of red, the personally reconfigured clothing, the proclamations about Jah and Satan and Satan's vampires, the tendency to chat to pigeons as he does to journalists, and to stash ceremonial swords around his studios in anticipation of some imminent, climactic battle between good and evil. If nothing else, the Scratch existence serves as proof of the importance of context when it comes to describing personality. If you were to encounter Perry unawares on the street, you'd surely be prompted to place a concerned call to the appropriate mental health professionals; yet in the realms of the music industry, he's been left to function as he pleases, variously acclaimed as a maverick, a genius, a visionary. The German documentarist Volker Schaner has been following Perry on his travels ever since he encountered the reggae legend at his Swiss retreat back in 1999. Who wouldn't be at the very least intrigued? Here was a man in various forms of exile, apparently cut off from his Jamaican roots, beavering away on artistic projects that ran the gamut from the arcane to the truly unfathomable. How did Perry get here, in this land of cuckoo clocks, having to dig himself out of deep snow to debut his new material before the palefaces of Lausanne? 

One of the achievements of Schaner's new profile Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise - made all the starker by the befuddling interviews we see the film's subject giving to representatives of the music press - is how it begins to make the movements of this so-called "space traveller" make some kind of sense. There are trippy animated inserts designed to school the uninitiated on black migratory politics; the subtitling of Perry's pronounced patois is throughout exemplary in its clarity, while respectful of the speaker's utterly idiosyncratic phrasemaking; producers - generally shrewder interpreters of a musician's material than the musicians themselves - are drafted in to winkle out meaning from Perry's zonked-cosmic lyrics. Soon, we're also spying signs and signifiers everywhere we look: faces inscribed in rocks, connections in airplane vapour trails, demons in the shadows cast by the late-afternoon sun. You'd be shouting from the rooftops, too, if you were seeing this stuff 24/7.

While celebrating Perry's ability to think some distance outside the box, Schaner retains a fascination for the boxes his subject has confined himself within - perhaps to preempt anybody locking him up. The camera approaches "The Secret Laboratory", Perry's Swiss bolthole, as though it were Tutankhamun's tomb, and well might Schaner tread carefully: before its destruction in a fire last year, this fragile shelter was a riot of collages (encompassing everything from Biblical passages to Disney video sleeves) and daubed slogans (the word "GANJA" recurs), a place where spiders were left to roam freely over decades of Perry paraphernalia. These scenes, while forming a felicitous rhyme with the illustrator's dishevelled workshop in this week's animated release Miss Hokusai, actually set me more in mind of the overstuffed Brighton hovel inhabited by the eccentric subject of Toby Amies' doc The Man Whose Mind Exploded. Once again, we're reminded how a certain level of hoarding, while a curse or a solace for the afflicted, offers nothing but a blessing for the passing filmmaker, who can point a camera in every direction and alight upon something of note, not to mention make concrete and literal what might be lurking inside their subjects' head.

Thankfully, this remains an enjoyable headspace to spend any time in: the Perry philosophy, such as we can derive from these 100 minutes, involves banishing demons, fighting the good fight, and taking the edge off with a nice big spliff come sundown. We're left to consider the extent to which music, and being given free rein to create, has helped to stave off any darkness in Perry's life - which is why Vision of Paradise might well provide pertinent viewing not just for longtime aficionados, but also those aforementioned mental health professionals, pondering new courses of treatment. Certainly, the scenes that find Perry wandering the London tourist trail, or swimming under stormclouds back home in Jamaica ("I am a fish!") evince an uncomplicated, in-the-moment joy, one rarely noted elsewhere among contemporary performers. Devotees may gripe there isn't enough of the music, but Schaner's film finally arrives at, if not the grand vision of paradise promised by its title, then at least one of attainable, earthly happiness. Lee Scratch Perry may just be the cheeriest vampire hunter the movies have ever put on screen.

Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

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