Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Film Review--Space Is the Place (1974)

Sun Ra is one of the most misunderstood jazz artists ever to record. There is no doubt that he was an oddball, but he is a whole lot more than dissonance and crazy headdresses. Sun Ra was one of the most politically pointed musicians of his time and was the only artist who worked in the avant-garde of jazz who so closely retained his basis in be-bop and swing, even at his craziest. There is no place in his body of work that is a more solid example of his artistic and political sides, as well as his fantastic sense of humor, than in his 1974 film version of the classic album Space Is the Place.

Sun Ra plays himself or, if you will, the galaxy hopping version of himself, in this story of his struggle to save the black race from corruption. As the story goes, Sun Ra and the Arkestra disappeared two years before the film takes place on their previous tour of Europe. The world has given them up for dead but, instead, they have actually transcended, figured out the principles of interstellar travel and, in their spaceship that is a pair of disembodied breasts, has found a planet that exudes the right vibrations and will serve as the utopia for the newly-saved black Americans. Ra: “We’ll set up a colony for black people here, see what they could do with a planet all their own without any white people around. They could drink in the beauty of this planet…that would be where the alterdestiny would come in.” Now that he has the planet, he has to convince the people to accept their savior and join him in space, which is clearly the place. The question is how.

It seems that the world is under the control of The Overseer, a media mogul and the king pimp, and Ra must vie for this control. To trick The Overseer into speaking with him, Ra travels back in time to the ‘30s disguised as strip club piano player Sunny Ray. He plays the intro for the girls and, when everyone hates the playing and wants to see the dancing, the Overseer demands he be removed from the stage. This angers Ra, who starts playing with more and more frenzy until his playing becomes so hot that it sets the club on fire. Everyone races for the exit leaving only Ra and the Overseer. Of course, the Overseer isn’t fooled by Ra’s ruse, and asks Ra what he wants from him. “Are you ready to alter your destiny?” Ra asks. The game is End of the World and the stakes: the souls of the black race. “Now that’s what I call cookin’ with grease!” answers The Overseer.

Things don’t really get bizarre until now. With The Overseer’s maniacal laugh, they are transported to the middle of the desert (or, presumably, somewhere outside Sacramento) where the game is to take place. Their deck of cards is some kind of bastardization of a tarot deck, and each card displays specific plot points that they then zoom into. From the desert, they transport magically to Oakland where Ra begins his journey to convert the youth to his cause. He opens the Outer Space Employment Agency to give meaningful volunteer jobs for Outer Spaceways Inc. (white people need not apply) and speaks at community centers, telling of the wonders of interstellar travel. “What if we won’t come? You gonna make us come?” one disaffected girl asks. “Then I’m gonna do you like they did you in Africa: chain you up and take you with me.” Ra replies with quiet resolve.

Slowly, Ra builds a following and, for one final splash, sets up a concert to get the message across once and for all. But all the while, white stooges from NASA have been tracking Ra to subvert his plan, steal his secrets of space travel and retain their power over the black race, going so far as to kidnap him and force him to listen to “Dixie” until he’ll talk. His followers orchestrate an escape, however, and the concert comes off as expected, solidifying Ra’s status as savior, and the time comes for redemption. “It’s the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” and Ra teleports to his starship where he escorts the saved black people to their alterdestiny. Jimmy Fey, the henchman for The Overseer, a radio announcer and voice throughout the film, tries one last ditch effort to get Ra to stay. Denied, he begins to walk away, seeing his fate. But Ra places his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder: “Wait! You cannot take the black part of you with you, I will take the black part of you with me!” and you see Jimmy getting onto the ship. But then we see Jimmy again, walking and talking like a white person, entering the home of The Overseer, and stealing his white prostitute away. Seeing this, The Overseer knows he’s lost and the souls of the black race are now in the possession of Ra, who speeds them away before Earth explodes by its own corruption.

The implication of this separation is that a primary reason why poor black people take drugs, pimp, prostitute themselves, etc, is because they are infected with the souls of white people; quite an indictment of the power struggle of race. This is the crux: music feeds the soul and raises the powerless to a level of responsibility and power over their actions. It is a message that smacks viewers across the face with a huge piano. Is it well acted? By no means. The story is weird and convoluted, but the message is clear. Interspersed throughout is concert footage featuring songs from the accompanying album, demonstrating Sun Ra’s true power: his command over his music and the statements therein. This is pure beauty, a vision that comes across as some seriously far-out poetry.

Interesting to note, in conclusion, that the 30th anniversary DVD release of Space Is the Place is nearly twenty minutes longer than previous versions. From what I understand, the majority of the cuts have to do with the truly evil actions of The Overseer, making his character ineffectual and, seemingly, taking away much of the motivation of Ra’s method. Without having done much research on the issue, I have to think that this was a deliberate action by the distributors. Am I just some self-hating cracker? Hard to say, but Space Is the Place certainly has a way of making me feel it.