This isn’t going to be a happy review. I can’t accept Lee Scratch Perry’s vision of Paradise any more than I can accept Volker Schaner’s film, Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise. Both the vision itself and the film based on it (a self-proclaimed “fairy tale documentary”) are incoherent, undermined by internal contradictions and acts of bad faith, and founded upon platitudes so banal and so widely accepted as to actually and inconceivably have become borderline dangerous.
There’s no denying that Lee “Scratch” Perry is an important figure in the development of Jamaican music. He was a central producer within the rise to prominence of reggae; he collaborated with Bob Marley on some of the latter’s most important pre-Island Records recordings (including the unforgettable “Mr. Brown featuring some truly innovate recording effects for 1970); he’s one of the founding fathers of dub music and thus is integral to the further rise of the producer and engineer in the music of the ’70s. He’s one of the first artists to employ samples as something more than a mere gimmick and to create new music by manipulating the recordings themselves. He constructed his Black Ark Studios in an effort to provide a refuge for black people and to inaugurate a spiritualized musical revolution that he hoped would change the world.
Aside from the latter fact, you will learn basically none of this from watching the movie. Although the talking heads incessantly reiterate his importance, no one bothers to stop to demonstrate that importance. No one bothers to explain matters in anything other than the vaguest of terms, demanding that the viewer already hold the requisite knowledge. Now this might be fine for a documentary that has another focus altogether, a documentary for those already acquainted with Perry’s career but who hope to get at some other, deeper mystery to the man. But this is a film that proclaims itself “The one movie that explains it all.” “Explaining it all” would seem to involve at least some basic biography, not simply empty hagiography. This film explains almost nothing.
Instead Schaner offers an abiding, fawning love for his subject coupled with a resolute unwillingness to do anything more than to allow the platitudes of which the elderly Perry divests himself to wash over the film unchallenged, unexamined, undigested. It’s not simply that the film follows Perry into the extreme territories of his fantasy life (that fantasy life, after all, has its charm), but rather that Schaner seems to egg his subject on to greater inanity. In its attempt to worship, Vision of Paradise condescends and exploits.
“Watch me; this is a miracle that you have never seen in your life,” Perry tells Schaner as he walks toward the water with a rock in hand. He then tosses the rock into the water. He proclaims “The water is God” (over the course of the film Perry will proclaim many things to be God). Schaner doesn’t try to examine what Perry might have meant. It’s simply presented as one more bizarre thing this “crazy African eccentric” (as a talking head will later characterize him) does; but more than that, all these eccentricities are supposed to be shamanic, the revelations of a mystic. They come off, however, as little more than the indulged ravings of a slightly mad person.
At times, glimpses of Perry’s inner turmoil emerge to belie the shamanic calm with which he is presented in the film. In talking about his relationship with reggae in general and Bob Marley in particular, Perry evinces a great deal of resentment. He clearly rails against what he perceives as his lack of financial gain and due recognition. He abandoned Jamaica, burned down his studio, and moved to Europe (the heart of the Babylon he defies).
Yet he desperately clings to the idea that his music had a political impact by showing the people that “they can survive with a positive vibration of an art and culture for themselves”. The film insistently endorses this notion that art has an inordinate political efficacy. This is the borderline dangerous platitude to which I alluded at the outset of this review. Reggae is portrayed not only as a political music, but one that effected real change. After all, talking head Dennis Bovell insists: “Why not be political when you are disgruntled?… How else are the people gonna know or vent their feelings about what they don’t like other than through music, poetry and the arts?”
The rhetorical question, clearly endorsed by the filmmaker, is woefully disingenuous. By latching on to this idealistic, utopian assertion (despite the obvious evidence to the contrary), this platitude enervates the real struggle for real change. It’s not that art can’t participate in revolutionary zeal, but it’s the case that art is hardly sufficient. If all one does is “vent feelings” through art (especially popular art, which exists under the threat, nay the very condition, of cooptation), then one does very little indeed.
Allow me to be clear. Perry’s contradictory character — his ambivalence toward his past successes coupled with the gleeful arrogance of his claims to be the incarnation of God and Haile Selassie — have the makings of a fascinating character study, one worthy of this important, if elusive subject. Unfortunately, Schaner wants us to accept the transcendent character of the artist without questioning it; he wants to provide, as Schaner puts it in a voiceover at the end, “a new Gospel”. But even this transcendence is musically underlined through constant (and rather annoying) recourse to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal rather than any music associated with Perry.
Indeed, the film doesn’t find the transcendent within Perry, as it foists a questionable German post-Romantic sense of transcendence upon him. There’s doubtless a way one could produce a filmic account of Perry’s eccentric vision that is respectful and illuminating, but Schaner’s paternalistic approach strikes me as misguided — and a little cruel.