Gil Scott-Heron – Black Wax
(MVD7495D. 79 minutes. DVD Review by Dan Bergsagel)
The camera slowly pans over a long line of dusty waxworks of American black leaders and icons. A lit cigarette is plucked with a “Thank you very much” from the hand of the final figure by Gil Scott-Heron, sitting expectantly next in line.
The casual confidence and understated humour of this opening scene sets the tone for an engaging film, made in 1982 on 16mm film and restored with 9 minutes of bonus material. The film provides an unpretentious insight into Gil Scott-Heron’s music, politics and personality. Splicing classic live onstage musical footage and charismatic stage patter (filmed in the aptly named Wax Museum Nightclub) with steadicam recordings of Scott-Heron reciting poetry as he walks through Washington DC – see extract below) , the director of the film Robert Mugge uses constant changes of pace to force the viewer to listen, not just hear what the poet has to say. Yet the film is most politically acerbic not on stage or on the streets, but when Scott-Heron finds himself in and amongst the waxworks of American heroes and presidents, critiquing the politics (and adjusting the ties) of the lifeless figures of people like Nixon and Reagan, that previously led his nation.
The musical styles that accompany him throughout are diverse. What’s that Music launches the group with a reggae groove – the chromatic harmonica intro and tight horns from the Midnight band backing an unhurried and unstrained vocal delivery. Funky bass lines and rhythmic horn parps slip into a Mingus erratic horn build up on Waiting for the Axe to Fall, before a Latin percussive shuffle on Gun – a joyful happy-go-lucky musical back drop to a rhyming discussion on the US constitution, gun prevalence and a failed Philadelphia arms amnesty. Ballad Winter in America brings a step change in tone, with atmospheric flute improvisation and woodwind sweeps filling in the multi-instrumental arrangement. In all these pieces Gil Scott-Heron presents as a sincere, natural singer. In between them he flits between a ‘Bluesologist’, a straight-talking poet, a neighbourhood tour guide and a historian. It’s in these interstitial moments that his underlying anger at the world’s injustices really surfaces.
In the interludes Scott-Heron walks the streets with his boombox on his shoulder showing the camera around like an old friend being given a candid city tour, Mugge constrasting the White House with empty houses, the Washington Monument with 11th and V neighbourhood streetlife. While reciting Paint it Black as he strolls – kids gather and wave, following the camera in the background. The recurrent theme of Scott-Heron ironically singing the praises of the nation’s capital (with the gleaming capitol in the background) reinforces the divide that he describes between the tourbus view of DC, and his real DC.
The full effect of socially-conscious music comes into play when scathing politcal verse is combined with catchy pop choruses on Alien, and irreverent humour on B-Movie. It’s easy to be reminded why he is seen as the godfather of rap, delivering poetry with good-natured humour, but with a sincerity and passion. And like all good rap, it comes with grooving beats and a heavy twist of jazz.
Black Wax has the feel of a historic record – all washed out colours and dated cars; nowadays shirts aren’t as oversized or glittery, and waistbands fall a couple inches lower. Yet the tragedy is that the film, and the injustices which Gil Scott-Heron calmly but passionately rails against within it, are nearly all still as relevant today as they were in 1982. Racial inequality, segragated cities, dangerous immigration, welfare spending cuts, unemployment, the decline in manufacturing, Cecil Rhodes and colonialism; these are all topics which are still being tackled the world over. While this list of complaints may come across as negative, he’s at pains to point out that it isn’t the country that he’s against per se, but instead the failure of the government to live up to the U.S.’s advanced publicity, of justice, liberty and equality.
In the last thirty years much has changed for the better, but the amount of progress which still remains to be made is draining. We lost a charismatic if troubled icon with Scott-Heron’s death in 2011 – its reissues of films like this that ensure we won’t lose his vision, too.