As a living, breathing science-fiction movie, Sun Ra was continually espousing far-out doctrines describing interplanetary utopias for the struggling black masses on Earth. Picking up threads of Egyptology, Freemasonry and the Underground Railroad and mythologies from Atlantis to Urantia, Sun Ra moved well past the role of jazz musician and became something of -- to use Ra-speak -- an omniversal tone prophet. From his start in Chicago gin joints in the '40s through his work as a session musician and continuing through the groundbreaking avant-garde approach of his Arkestra, as time went on, Sun Ra's musical vision became less about individual creative expression and more a direct result of a Saturn-by-way-of-the-ghetto worldview. Two recent DVDs -- 1959's "The Cry of Jazz" (Atavistic/MVD) and 1974's "Space Is the Place" (Plexifilm) -- document mileposts on that journey, while easily demonstrating just how completely special Sun Ra's place was in the jazz pantheon.
Clocking in at just under 35 minutes, "The Cry of Jazz" wasn't so much a documentary or performance piece as were many similarly titled "jazz" movies of the era. Rather, Edward Bland's film attempts to wedge the outerplanetary skronk of the Arkestra into the jazz fork between "then" and "now." In fact, Bland explicitly calls for "the death of jazz," and obviously sees what Sun Ra is doing as a clarion for the end of the smiling and shuffling of the Dixieland revival and bebop eras, with an eye toward a fiery, revolutionary future of black music. Sun Ra obviously agreed.
Filmed near the end of his "Chicago period" (the Arkestra tentatively gelled in Chicago, turning into a full-fledged jazz commune upon moving to Philadelphia shortly after this footage was shot), "The Cry of Jazz" documents a transition period for the Arkestra, as the music they were making was going exponentially further and further out. This methodology dovetailed neatly with Bland's revolution-minded propaganda, as their sound was blowing tradition out of the water in the same way that the civil-rights movement was attempting to disassemble 200 years of "tradition." Sadly, Bland's treatment gets in the way of itself, and "The Cry of Jazz," despite strong performances, is a bit of a muddle thematically. Nonetheless, as a rare visual document of the Arkestra's infancy, it's priceless.
Fast forward 12 years. After a decade-plus in Philadelphia, Ra and the Arkestra were beckoned to Oakland by, of all people, Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers. They were given a place to live and Ra got a teaching gig at Berkeley. Obviously, Seale had caught on to the pro-black resonance within all of Ra's sci-fi freakiness, and the Arkestra -- a coalition of self-sufficient, semimagical black musicians -- was the perfect house band for the Revolution. But reality caught up after a couple of years: External pressures fractured the Panthers, Sonny lost his teaching job and less than two years after arriving in Oakland, the Arkestra was headed back to Philadelphia. Before they left, though, director John Coney caught Sun Ra's ear and the plans were hatched for "Space Is the Place," a psychedelic, sci-fi, ontologically enhanced blaxploitation flick.
For all of his theories, theologies, theosophies and philosophies, it was none too surprising that Sun Ra was interested in making a movie that visually interpreted his ideas, and, in broad strokes, the plotline of "Space Is the Place" does just that. Having penned scores of poems and "cosmic equations" outlining his worldview, a movie could only explain so much -- a low-budget movie even less -- but Coney managed to cram quite a bit into the 82-minute production (this new DVD restores 19 minutes excised from an earlier release): spaceships fueled by the power of music, government conspiracies, revolutionary tactics, a Biblical exodus and, most tellingly, a black pimp who's the real enemy. Sun Ra always identified "blackness" as a position of divine authority, a belief fostered from Egyptology and bolstered by the alien cosmology of Elijah Muhammad; accordingly, he had nothing but pity for terrestrial black men beholden to drugs and crime and nothing but contempt for the terrestrial black men who perpetuated those weaknesses. "The Overseer" (the pimp in "SITP") is worse than the plantation hand for which he was named and the devil he represents. It's a simplistic metaphor demanding black self-empowerment in a way that's far more sententious than a raised fist and, for all the cheap effects and musicianly acting that threatens to derail the film, the Overseer is an unforgettable icon.
Of course, it's easy to read a lot into "Space Is the Place," because Sun Ra put a lot in it to read. Each line of dialogue is dense with multiple meanings, much of it inscrutable. However, the overwhelming positivity of the film is hard to escape, and even today, it's less a film about a revolutionary musician than it is a musician's film about a revolution. The same problems are there and, if Sun Ra was still alive, he'd insist the same solution is too.