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The return of Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place

"Chicago, 1943." At least, that’s what the subtitle reads. A mixed-race night spot, complete with Cotton Club–style chorus line accompanied by a pianist — one "Sunny Ray" — clad in bopper’s knit cap and shades. A white-suited mack informs his waiter that the man at the keyboard "sounds like shit." The waiter tells the pianist, who nods but keeps playing. And playing, ratcheting the music up from a stride pulse through modernistic tone clusters to the kind of two-fisted ivory smashing Cecil Taylor would envy. The upright shakes and smokes, pasties pop off dancers’ chests, and the club bursts into panic — and flames. Cut to the aftermath: pianist and pimp facing off, the latter telling Ray, "I know you’d pull some shit like this."

So begins Space Is the Place (Plexifilm), a long-unavailable 1974 feature starring avant-jazz behemoth Sun Ra — for "Sunny Ray" is he — and his Interstellar Myth-Science Arkestra that’s now on DVD. It was planned as a concert film, but director John Coney and producer Jim Newman soon shifted to a full-dress narrative, tracking Ra’s efforts to transport the black population of Earth (or at least a chunk of inner-city Oakland) to a self-ruled planet. It’s indifferently shot, edited, and acted, and the blue-screen SFX make Battlestar Galactica seem like a Pixar production. But this on-the-cheap approach matches the visionary-on-a-budget look of the Arkestra’s Afro-Egyptian costumes, and the whole is an appropriate introduction to Sun Ra’s persona and mythos via far-out sounds and farther-out science-fiction spiritualism.

Ra himself is a regal, impassive presence, whether he’s being mocked by a crowd of young proto-Panthers ("Why are your shoes so big?") or tortured by ofay NASA agents trying to get his secret for turning musical vibrations into rocket fuel. (They strap him to an armchair and force him to listen to "Dixie.") And the music, though fitfully presented, is still powerful. A climactic concert scene centers on a lengthy call-and-response between Ra, who’s surrounded by banks of keyboards, and singer/dancer June Tyson; they trade lines about the fate of Earth and its need for an "altered destiny" as the band shriek behind them. (The concert is a trap set by Ra’s pursuers; he foils them, in the process aborting his mission, by winking the band back to his space vessel à la Bewitched.)

Space Is the Place blends several flavors of cinematic cheese, from blaxploitation to sexploitation. In one scene, time-traveling pimp the Overseer (Ray Johnson of Dirty Harry) compels two of his stable to strip down for the NASA squares. (The rocket scientists can’t achieve liftoff.) In a 1997 biography named after the film, John F. Szwed notes that Ra, himself celibate, later regretted these softcore passages. Ra’s efforts at re-editing to add "more beauty" to the film helped ensure its obscurity. The current DVD’s interview with Coney and Newman adds a surprising footnote: the production shared costs and even some performers with a very different milestone of ’70s film, the "classy" porn flick Behind the Green Door.

Sun Ra escaped Terran shackles in 1993, but his myth continues to fascinate. Reissues like the forthcoming Spaceship Lullaby (Atavistic) unearth new aspects of his immense and scattered body of work; meanwhile, the "Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen" — an altoist who came on board in 1957 — performs his material at home and abroad. And late last year, Yo La Tengo gave Sun Ra what he never had in life: a Billboard charting, via their Nuclear War EP (Matador). The release, with its four versions of the rap-influenced 1982 composition, counted as a ‘single’ under industry rules, and it appeared at #10 on the magazine’s Hot 100 for the week of December 7.

This past September, the Hoboken rockers and a 16-piece Allen-led ensemble headlined concerts in New York and Philadelphia (the latter where the Arkestra lived collectively in the ’70s). After separate sets, they joined forces for an extended jam on "Nuclear War," with all the piece’s portent ("When they drop the bomp/Your ass got to go") and playfulness ("What you gonna do/Without your ass?") intact behind layers of chanting and percussion and Ira Kaplan’s reedy combo organ. The show’s encore was an even rarer treat: an acoustic and vocal-group rendering of "Somebody’s in Love with Somebody," a decidedly unspacy doo-wop chestnut from 1956, when the man born Herman Blount had only begun to reinvent himself as an ageless galactic citizen. Over the last 30 years, George Clinton, Chuck D, and Prince have all turned Sun Ra’s notion of a "Black Space Program" to their own ends. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James MacNew might not have the melanin Space Is the Place requires for interstellar travel, but they may yet make the mother ship.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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