A freaky and far-fetched blend of blaxploitation, sci-fi and free jazz, director’s cut of “Space is the Place” provides a rare look into one odd jazz master’s precepts. Sun Ra, hailed and harassed during his lifetime (1914-1993) for bringing a space-age monastic lifestyle to jazz, proffers in “Space” the idea that the planet he lives on can provide a fair alternative for blacks looking to create a self-sufficient society. Amid the dogma from Ra and the black leaders of Oakland, where pic is set, are some cogent radical thoughts, but the screwy storyline makes the Sun Ra element the pic’s lone redeeming value. Long out of print on video, Plexifilm’s edition restores pic to its original 82 minutes and includes director and producer interviews and some home movies of Ra and his Arkestra.
The enigmatic Ra, a separatist in jazz circles who believed in a band living communally, which they did first in Chicago and then Philadelphia, wrote and performed music that went everywhere from Ellington to Venus. His oeuvre, once it had a beginning and an end, possessed an empirically drawn arc that illuminated his greatness. Like this movie, Ra moved in directions that weren’t always easy to comprehend. And like he, director John Coney takes risks that don’t necessarily have a quick resolution and in some cases, the images are disturbingly violent, which Ra himself was against.
In “Space is the Place,” concert footage of the Pharoah-like garbed Ra and his caped Intergalactic Solar Arkestra intersects with a tale of paranoia, potential and power set in the base of Black Panthers and community centers where the Panther creed had its highest level of acceptance. The story is nothing to get excited about. It’s standard blaxploitation settings and elements — crime fighters and criminals, pimps and hookers, a pool hall and a brothel — but the presence of the Outer Space Employment Agency makes it extraordinary.
Ra is spurned as an outsider. He dresses oddly, speaks in short tenets about race and space, and is unfazed by earthlings. Eventually, some of the people fed up with the rules established by white rulers figure Ra might have a plan. It can be tedious getting through all of the points “Space is the Place” wants to make, but the footage of Ra, saxophonist Marshall Allen and singer June Tyson is a valuable addition to his canon.
Intriguingly, pic was a shot at a time when Ra had moved from printing his own albums and selling them in indie stores and at gigs. Impulse!, which issued John Coltrane’s late-period records, was taking a chance on Ra in the early 1970s as were rock concert bookers, who found his theatricality and lengthy songs ideal when placed alongside rock acts with a similar affinity for improvisation.