“This music is all a part of another tomorrow. Another kind of language. Speaking things of nature. Naturalness. The way it should be. Speaking things of blackness. About the void. The endless void. The bottomless pit surrounding you.”
-Sun Ra, Space Is the Place
Free jazz pioneer Sun Ra didn’t just create his own major; he taught a class, “The Black Man and the Cosmos,” to Berkeley pupils in 1971. Unfortunately, no one filmed those sessions. The 1974 flick Space Is the Place – a hypnotic mishmash of blue-screen sci-fi effects, righteous sociology, Egyptiana, hipster jive and concert footage – is probably the closest thing to a distillation of Ra’s complex philosophy he left behind. Plexifilm recently restored and reissued the film, giving a new batch of Ra disciples something to puzzle over.
We meet our cryptic, deadpan protag as he scouts distant planets, seeking a locale for a peaceful, black space colony. With a hooded, mirror-faced figure in tow, he shows us around a landscape of lush vegetation and floating bubbles. Yes, this will do nicely. “The music is different here… It could effect their vibrations. For the better, of course.”
Cut to a Chicago strip joint, ’43. Witness Ra’s initial confrontation with the Overseer, a white-clad, stogey-puffing metaphysical pimp. As pianist “Sunny Ray,” our man terrorizes a roomful of gawkers in a scene that’ll remind “blaxploitation” buffs of Rudy Ray Moore’s public hex in Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-In-Law. Shaken but not stirred, the Overseer challenges Ra to a round of “End of the World,” an tarot-ish card game that apparently determines the balance of the plot.
Suddenly, it’s the ‘70s and we’re in California. To much ballyhoo from the local media, Sun Ra and the Intergalactic Arkestra emerge from a spaceship that resembles a large firework. Ra relates his plan to teleport America’s blacks into space through music and places a helmet on an uptight radio announcer named Jimmy Fey, causing him to faint.
While hospitalized, Fey enters an awkward alliance with the Overseer, who, along with NASA and the FBI, aims to co-opt Sun Ra’s mystique and block his plan. The Overseer’s yen for hookers is outsized only by his glee at humiliating Fey and anyone else who happens to walk inside his radar.
The film often cuts to the Arkestra in concert, performing such loopy, soothing anthems as “Satellites are Spinning” and “Blackman.” According to director John Coney and producer Jim Newman, Ra penned all of his own lines, and Space Is the Place leans heavily on his creative input. However, Ra was reportedly never quite happy with the movie, complaining ‘til the end that there wasn’t enough beauty in it.
If you’re looking for the goods on Sun Ra, the scene selection feature might prove handy. Some scenes serve to establish the Overseer’s sadism and have little to do with Ra. But Ra’s fingerprints are all over other segments.
In one memorable scene, Ra takes his message directly to an urban youth center. When the skeptical teenagers demand that he shit or get off the pot – “hippie” was already a pejorative at this point – he explains that he does not represent reality, but rather myth, and that if they choose not to join him in space, he may take them by force. Oddly, most of the youngsters seem satisfied with this, and one later defends Ra while pitching pennies with the Overseer.
Ra’s next project is the Outer Space Employment Agency. A down-on-his-luck NASA scientist, a blotto vagrant and a horny hippiechick all apply, but retreat in confusion.
After a media blitz and a handshake bargain with Fey, Ra prepares for a concert. As he leaves a grueling practice session, some white thugs kidnap him. He won’t reveal his knowledge of teleportation, so they tie him up and force him to listen to a tinny version of “Dixie.” Two young Ra adherents rescue him in time for the show, but he doesn’t manage to salvage the entire black race, absconding only with the youngsters, a few long-suffering hookers and the “black part” of Jimmy Fey.
Space Is the Place has long been considered a missing link by students of blaxploitation – even Darius James, in his definitive survey That’s Blaxploitation!: The Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X By an All-Whyte Jury), admitted that, as of the book’s writing, he hadn’t seen it. And it’s a difficult movie to scrutinize. While it elucidates many things about Sun Ra – his optimism about space colonization, his flair for Egyptian aesthetics, his preference for harmony over soulless order, and the emotional Tilt-A-Whirl of his music – its plot is hard to tie together without some stocky intoxicants on hand. Still, with the right nonchalant detachment, it’s a lot more fun than Superfly or Plan 9 From Outer Space, and it captures Nixon-era urban desperation like few other films outside the blaxploitation canon.
The new edition comes with grainy home movies of the Arkestra frolicking in Egypt and liner notes by pretentious stickman Thurston Moore that I haven’t read.
By Emerson Dameron