“Everything needs an opposite. We have a White House, so now we need a Black House.”
“The problem with Harlem is too much sex, drugs and violence. If we took all the children of Harlem and made them memorize the names of the 99 Pharaohs then there wouldn’t be sex, drugs and violence in Harlem anymore.”
“The Saturnians told me to play the music of the black prophet, Duke Ellington, but the black man paid no attention so now I am playing the music of the white prophet, Walt Disney, and spreading the shield of his beauty over the face of the Earth so the Saturnians will not destroy us” (followed by a half hour jam of ‘Pink Elephants on parade’ which occasionally sounds like its source material).
Such is the wisdom and personality of the late free jazz artist Sun Ra (paraphrased quotes there, pulled from memory) who apparently (and delightfully) really believed in his own voluptuous excess and gibberish (enough to establish a Space Age monastic communal order among his followers; the Intergalactic Arkestra, and, posthumously, a church named after him). Claiming to be a Saturnian, Sun Ra would appear on stage, dressed in goodwill Pharaoh garb, with the planets of the solar system revolving around his head.
In 1974 Sun Ra made his only film, Space is the Place, directed by John Coney, who also never made another movie. It is an odd artifact, a hybrid of science fiction, blaxploitation and (too little) avant-garde jazz.
In the film, as in life, Sun Ra is the quintessential outsider and space is a metaphorical Eden for this much put upon black man. The plot is threadbare, involving villainous pimps and dealers, Black Panther avenger protagonists, local nightclubs, pool halls, cat houses, and, of course, an Outer Space Employment Agency that Sun Ra sets up after coming to Earth from a faraway planet. To recruit a new colony, he espouses racial freedom through Egyptian epigrams, Stockhausen-like jazz and a spirit filled Rocket Ship. Of course, Ra is challenged by establishment agents and a supreme villain, the Overseer (Ray Johnson), who lures impressionable black men away from Ra’s brand of truth with the vices of sex and money. Ra preaches against decadence and hits a nerve when showing the pimp and his followers that they are no different than the White Man (Nixon, here) they rage against. Ra promises a land of racial harmony and social justice lies within the Milky Way’s stars, and who are we to argue?
The film is as eccentric and inexplicable as Sun Ra himself. Space is the Place demands to be seen by every aficionado of bizarre cinema and equally bizarre jazz. The biggest complaint about the film is that there simply is not enough music, but that’s easily remedied by a sampling of essential Sun Ra albums. His discography is mind bogglingly extensive, but a good start is the soundtrack album “Space is the Place,” the earlier “Super Sonic Jazz”, “Jazz in Silhouette,” “Futuristic Sounds,” “Atlantis,” “The Magic City,” “Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy,” and a personal favorite: “Outer Planes of There.”
Sun Ra’s music certainly was influential on artists such as Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton. Ra’s early discography is surprisingly accessible and has more kinship with Mingus than Stockhausen. Of course, much of his later music is decidedly not for newbies to free jazz. Reportedly, Ra was too much even for Miles Davis, who walked out of an Arekstra concert mumbling “that guy is nuts.”
In addition to Space is the Place, Philip Niblock’s Sun Ra short The Magic Sun (1966) and Robert Mugge’s documentary A Joyful Noise (1980) are most welcome diversions to a bland and normal world, which is about the most apt tribute and description applied to the unique being known as Sun Ra, who once walked among us.