Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise
(MVD7501D. Film directed by Robert Mugge, remastered for DVD, plus bonus audio tracks ; review by Geoff Winston)
“The police knocked on the door … there had been some complaints because of the music. I told him I wasn’t playing music, I was playing Joyful Noise. That’s what the Bible says: Make a Joyful Noise for the Lord.”
This episode, described by Sun Ra in one of his discursive monologues captured in Robert Mugge‘s much lauded documentary from 1980, ties in nicely with the film’s title, Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. The Biblical rhetoric also makes a connection with the characteristics that made Sun Ra such a charismatic figure to the devoted jazz musicians who coalesced around him, and to other musicians and devotees outside his Arkestra who have been touched not only by his music but also by the extraordinary mythologies that he created around his music and personality.
In addition to a prodigious musical talent, Sun Ra had gifts in common with preachers, prophets and cult leaders, not least the gift of being able to persuasively articulate a vision of redemptive aspiration, and in the film there are several references from his musicians – read followers – to Sun Ra’s status as leader.
Released when Mugge was an emerging director at only 30, Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise is one of many notable films that he directed about significant musicians including Sonny Rollins, Al Green, Gil Scott-Heron and Reuben Blades, and, on viewing the newly remastered version on DVD, it is not difficult to see why it was judged by Time Out to be ‘One of the 50 Greatest Music Films Ever.’
Mugge’s finely honed presentation of this uniquely visionary figure in contemporary jazz was born out of his enthusiasm after witnessing the Sun Ra Arkestra at first hand in 1972. Wide-ranging and sensitively structured, the film takes in vibrant live concert footage from club shows, and a rousing rooftop performance with great vocals from June Tyson in temperatures so hot that soles of the musicians’ shoes began to melt!
These are balanced with an intimate interlude with Sun Ra playing (and recording on cassette) electronic keyboard at home, a rare glimpse of an Arkestra rehearsal, and interviews with band members who lived commune-style in Ra’s home in Philly, and with baritone saxophonist Danny Thompson at Pharaoh’s Den, the store he ran to inspire the youth in the area. The great saxophonist John Gilmore reveals that Ra was ‘more stretched out than Monk,’ so advanced in ‘intervals, melody and harmony’ that he decided to ‘make this the stop,’ while percussionist James Jackson talks through how Sun Ra guided him in making his Lightning Wood Drum from a tree trunk struck in a storm.
As Mugge has put it so succinctly, ‘[Sun Ra] was a profound philosopher who told fables, created myths and created metaphors which he hoped people would learn from.’ Glueing it all together in the film are Sun Ra’s musings, a tapestry of ideas and observations which embrace Ancient Egypt, science fiction and concepts of outer space, shot in the Egyptian galleries of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and on the rooftop of the University’s International House, and, finally, with an unconventional, non-partisan political slant, in front of the White House.
Mugge has explained that the project was realised ‘pretty well without money and pretty well dependent upon friends volunteering their time and equipment,’ something he says to students you do maybe once in your directing career. And with friends like Lawrence McConkey, who was to become the hand-held camera operator of choice for the likes of Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino, the quality shines through.
In his 2013 interview, Mugge bemoaned the fact that his one-hour film, shot mainly in 1978, had been out of print for some time, and his son reported that the unofficial and low-grade uploads on YouTube had garnered a quarter of a million hits!
On a mission to rectify this, Mugge explained to me that he and MVD are re-releasing films from his back catalogue and that, to ensure optimum quality, he personally transported his original 16mm master copies to and from Technicolor in Canada so they could transfer them to HD Video, and likewise the video master from which they sourced the soundtrack. On his return to base, as a labour of love, he took on the demanding tasks of synching the visual and audio files which Technicolor sent him, colour-correcting each scene and updating the titles.
As a bonus on the DVD, fuller versions of tracks shown on film can be heard in audio format – including a blistering solo spot from Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s dynamic portable organ solo as well as his piano blues, and a tremendous version of Round Midnight with Gilmore’s soloing – which make Mugge’s illuminating exposition of the Sun Ra ‘mythocracy’ an even more enticing package.