Red Bull Music Festival LA 2019: Sun Ra's Arkestra Soundtracks His 45-Year-Old Film 'Space Is The Place' Live [Recap]
Sun Ra, the experimental free jazz musician credited as a pioneer of Afrofuturism, still lives on long after his death (he passed May 30, 1993) not only for his music but his mythos.
Throughout his career Ra was an enigmatic figure. The Alabama-born bandleader and composer rarely, if ever, discussed his personal life, as well as denied his birth name, Herman Blount, which he changed to Le Sony’r Ra when he was in his late 30s.
Only after his death were fans able to learn who Ra was prior to his mythic transformation. In 2000, John F. Szwed, Ra’s biographer, published his book Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, which uncovered everything from his birth name and date to other parts of his early life.
Still, the story Ra created for himself continues to be a significant part of people’s fascination with him — a black man who wanted to take listeners to space with his music.
Space Is The Place, a science fiction film released in 1974, offers a literal imagining of that want while contributing to Ra’s mythos. The film was shown during Red Bull LA Music Festival‘s Center Channel, a series focused on storytelling in film, TV, and other image-based media. As the last event of the Center Channel series, the Space Is The Place screening featured a live score from Ra’s Arkestra.
Directed by John Coney, produced by Jim Newman, and written by Ra and Joshua Smith, Space Is The Place finds Ra and a man known as the Overseer engaging in a game of cards to decide the fate of the black race. A hyrbrid of B-movie sci-fi, blaxploitation, and avant garde, the film features footage of Ra and his Arkestra performing in Oakland, as well as loosely scripted dramatic scenes, resulting in a somewhat non-linear narrative that finds the late jazz musician traveling through time and space, the Arkestra’s live soundtrack adding to the surrealism of it all.
Led by Marshall Allen, the alto saxophonist who performed almost exclusively with Ra from 1958 until his death (he’s also led the Arkestra since 1993), the Arkestra’s blend of electronic and jazz sounds filled the Ukranian Culture Center. Drums, horns, synths, and chants sung by the ensemble’s members gradually transformed into a swirl of dissonance. At some points it was even difficult to tell if feedback coming from the amps was intentional or not, the experimental atmosphere of the set creating a tension that made the screening all the more immersive.
Allen’s manipulation of that tension was masterful, building the band up only to have it dissipate whenever Ra took to the screen. At the core of Space Is The Place is Ra’s “origin story”: that after an alleged trip to Saturn while attending college at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in the 30s, he returned ready to create the type of music he became known for.
“My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up…I wasn’t in human form…I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn…they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me,” Ra said of the experience according to Szwed’s book. “They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools…the world was going into complete chaos…I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”
In the film, Ra discovers a new planet in outer space and returns to Oakland for the sole purpose of convincing African Americans to settle on this new planet with him. However, the Overseer, an archetypal pimp-overlord, and Jimmy Fey, the Overseer’s employee, stand in his way. As convoluted as the movie’s plot is, there is something to be said about the commentary it provides through Ra and the Overseer. As someone who wants to liberate black people, Ra’s intentions contrast those of the Overseer who exploits people for his own personal gain. This is reflected in one particular scene where two women prostitutes working for the Overseer humiliate their customers — two white men — and are beaten to death by them. The Overseer disregards their deaths and doesn’t go after the men, leaving another worker to take care of the women.
Racism and violence against black people at the hands of white people are also touched on in the film, particularly through two white NASA scientists who want to learn the scerets of Ra’s space travel technology. The pair threatens him with violence and even attempts to shoot him when they’re unsuccessful.
Although Space Is The Place isn’t notable in terms of its narrative, it is in regards to its visuals. The colors, the special effects, the ways in which scenes are shot — it’s a bizarre but fascinating film that captures the larger than life persona that was Ra.
Once the film finished, the Arkestra went into one last performance and took to the crowd to encourage everyone to participate before thanking everyone for attending the event.
Ra’s afrofuturism showed black people that they could dream beyond a city, state, country, or planet. The Arkestra soundtracking Space Is The Place served as a testament to that.