45*. SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974)

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“I am strange,
my mind is tinted with the colors of madness,
they fight in silent furor in their effort to possess each other,
I am strange.”–Sun Ra, “I Am Strange”



FEATURING: , Ray Johnson

PLOT: Sun Ra returns to earth from his cosmic explorations with plans to relocate black folk to a new planet. Arriving in his spaceship in Oakland, Ra visits a youth community center and opens an outer space employment agency to spread his message.; NASA agents kidnap him, hoping to learn his technological secrets. Meanwhile, in a desert dimension, Ra and the pimp-like Overseer play a card game for the future of the black race.

Still from Space Is the Place (1974)


  • Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount. He dropped out of college after he had a vision in which he was transported to the planet Saturn (or so he claimed). Never signed to a big record label, Ra toured and recorded prolifically, especially throughout his 1950s and 1960s heyday, releasing albums himself. His music was highly avant-garde, incorporating free jazz, synthesizers, chanting, oddball poetry incorporating mythological and space-faring themes, Egyptian costuming, and lavish stage productions.
  • The producer originally envisioned the film as a documentary, but input from many sources (including Ra himself) eventually led to this narrative movie.
  • Filmed in 1972 at the same time and on some of the same sets (and with one of the same actors) as the pornographic film Behind the Green Door. Space Is the Place was briefly released theatrically in 1974. It then disappeared until an edited version surfaced on VHS in the early 1990s.
  • Sun Ra improvised all of his dialogue, as did the kids interviewed at the community center.
  • Confusingly, Sun Ra’s classic 1972 album “Space is the Place” is not the soundtrack to this film, despite the fact that Ra wears a costume from the production on the cover. The actual soundtrack album was recorded contemporaneously but not released until 1993. The two albums share only the title track in common, in a radically different performance.
  • In 2003, scenes were restored which were missing from the VHS release. These scenes, featuring nudity, violence, or other debauchery inserted by co-screenwriter Joshua Smith, had been removed by Sun Ra himself; therefore, the 64-minute VHS cut is sometimes known as the “Sun Ra cut.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Su  Ra’s Egyptian costume, especially his crown combining a King Tut-styled headdress topped by an enormous solar crystal flanked by golden antlers. (It resembles the crown worn by Isis.) Ra’s fashion choices earn him some genuine stares from pedestrians as he drives through Oakland streets in a convertible, flanked by a golden-headed lion and a falcon. This majestic Pharonic helmet was so striking it made both the cover of both the movie poster and the identically titled jazz album.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Tarot blackjack for black souls; “Dixie” torture

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An improvised mashup of surrealism, blaxploitation tropes, bizarro cosmic jazz, and messianic intergalactic Egyptology, Space Is the Place is an outsider artifact that could only have come from one man: the great Sun Ra.

DVD release trailer for Space is the Place

COMMENTS: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and Sun Ra is from Saturn. There’s no other explanation for Space Is the Place, which was definitely not shepherded into being by anyone from the planet Earth. Ra claimed to be from Saturn and, although to this day no one knows whether he really literally believed it, he never broke character. Sun Ra’s movie (and it is Sun Ra’s movie, no matter who is credited as director) is just like one of his jazz compositions: fluid, free-associative, experimental, collaborative, sincere, and simultaneously abrasive and harmonious. Ra establishes various themes, and then he and his followers riff on them in a call-and-response that always eventually leads back to the center: Ra is an Egyptian god from Saturn, and he’s come to this planet to liberate his people.

Is Space is the Place science fiction? It opens on a lavender-filtered planet with floating plastic flowers, an offscreen bubble machine, and a character from Meshes of the Afternoon nodding along in the background. Ra has a yellow spaceship (or ark) that looks a bit like a pair of goggles, and emits red beams that form concentric circles. Ra himself is fond of spouting gibberish about  “isotope teleportation” and “transmolecularization,” and NASA is keen to figure out how he converts harmonic progressions into energy.  For the first time, all of the Arkestra’s musical musings about traveling the spaceways and outer space conglomerates coalesce into the notion of Ra as a messiah relocating the black race to another planet through the power of music. (This trope repeats itself in 20th century mythology: Ray Bradbury’s story “The Other Foot,” published in the 1951 anthology “The Illustrated Man,” was about blacks fleeing Jim Crow to colonize Mars; the 2013 satire Destination Planet Negro used a similar device.) The movie leans into the cheesiness of its effects, with an obvious affection for low-budget 50s sci-fi. To Ra, it’s just another element of the elaborate lifelong myth he’s crafting about himself.

Is Space Is the Place blaxploitation? Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft had just arrived on the scene in 1971, a year before Space began filming. With his starched white suit, silver walking stick, and virile swagger, the satanic Overseer, symbol of false black hopes, was straight-up mack pimp archetype, and the Oakland streets are littered with stereotypes like the comic wino and the pool hustler. The movie’s treatment of women (featured chanteuse June Tyson aside) is embarrassing; they exist mostly as sex objects. The brothel scenes serve to ridicule the white power establishment as impotent, but the fetishistic nurse threesome is completely gratuitous. That’s the Overseer’s work, and these sexist elements (along with violence) were cut by the ascetic Ra for his preferred edit of the film. Nevertheless, they give the movie a strong period aesthetic that cements its early 1970s milieu, and although Ra would prefer we not see it, it’s a stronger (and even weirder) film with the pimps and hos strutting about jive-talking. The exploitation trappings, orchestrated by the Overseer himself for the seduction of the audience, contrast ironically with Ra’s principled resistance to black subjugation.

Is Space Is the Place a musical? There’s not as much music here as there should be. The few short snippets of Ra and the Arkestra in concert will disappoint fans. But it’s impossible for a Sun Ra movie to not be suffused with the spirit of music. The background sounds mix eerie space noises with the Arkestra’s horn players blowing daring dissonant arpeggios from distant planets. June Taymor’s chants throughout remind you that “it’s after the end of the world” and “we sing this song to abolish sorrow.” Ra uses Minimoog bleeps to teleport worthy youths to utopian planets. Most notably, Ra demonstrates the mystical power of his piano playing through his alter-ego Sunny Ray, who blows away a Chicago nightclub using only frantic atonal piano that sounds like Fats Waller temporarily possessed by the spirit of Arnold Schoenberg on a meth binge. The music is so challenging that smoke rises from his piano as the notes shatters glass and cause a stripper stampede (and also put a frown on the Overseer’s face). It’s actually a pretty good representation of the effect Sun Ra’s music has on squares.

Blaxploitation, sci-fi- musical: Space Is the Palace is all of the above, and more. We have barely even touched on the fact that Ra travels through time and duels with the Overseer in a card game hosted in some alternate dimension, or given much appreciation for Ra’s esoteric philosophy and how it relates to his notions of racial justice. There’s plenty to dig into here: the movie is an invitation to probe the outer limits of Sun Ra. If you need any final evidence of how singular this movie is, consider: how may films do you know that give a special thanks in the credits to either the Rosicrucian Order or El Saturn Research—much less both?


“…one of those wonderfully strange filmic adventures that now seem impossible.”–Virginie Selavy, Electric Sheep (DVD)

“…a rare and mystic ’70s cult artifact…”–Rumsey Taylor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Space Is the Place (1974)


Space Is the Place: The Singular Journey of Sun Ra – Jazz writer Albert Gilbert’s article contains a wealth of background information on the film

Space Is the Place (film) – TV Tropes – TV Tropes Space Is the Place page

The Transmolecularization of [Black] Folk: Space is the Place, Sun Ra and Afrofuturism – Academic essay by Nabeel Zuberi, particularly focused on the film’s music

Space Is the Place (1974)‘s original review for this site

Weird View Crew: Space Is the Place (1974)‘s video review of the movie for this site


“Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra” – This thoroughly researched Sun Ra biography naturally devotes a good deal of time to the movie Space Is the Place


As mentioned above, Space Is the Place was not available except in a highly-edited (and Sun Ra-approved) VHS tape until an outfit called Plexifim released the complete version on DVD in 2003 (buy). That disc includes an essay booklet, while Sun Ra home movies and an interview with director John Coney and producer Jim Newman comprise the special video features. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and can be a bit expensive.

A better option may be the 2019 Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD put out by the German company Rapid Eye Movies (buy). The included Blu-ray may not play on all US machines, but the DVD appears to be region free (at least, it played for this reviewer; caveat emptor). The video quality is not good (although vastly improved from the source, as an included demonstration shows), so you may not miss much by going with the lower-definition option. Extras include footage of the post-Ra Arkestra performing at the restoration’s German premiere, a post-show Q&A with Jim Newman and surviving Arkestra veterans who reminisce about Ra, another interview with Newman, and a set of collectible postcards.

Space Is the Place also streams on the Criterion Channel. Perhaps someday they will officially add it to the Collection?

(This movie was originally nominated for review by markiss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Space is the Place (Special Edition) (+ DVD) [Blu-ray] [1974]
  • Space Is the Place (Blu-Ray & DVD Combo)
  • Space Is the Place

5 thoughts on “45*. SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974)”

  1. This is the fourth Certified Weird film that has been sampled in alternative hip-hop songs. I was happy to recognize early dialogue as showing up in the Madvillain song “Shadows of Tomorrow.” Here are the other Certified Weird movies that have been sampled:

    “Altered States” in “Exhausted Love” by Eyedea and Abilities
    “The Holy Mountain” in “Help Wanted” by Company Flow
    “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” in “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” by El-P

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