THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
If you think that Ol Dirty Bastard or OutKast are on some unusual musical wavelengths, they've got nothing on Sun Ra. A jazz innovator for decades, Sun Ra created a sound that could easily have come from his home planet - Saturn. The legend around Sun Ra is bizarre and complex and it's one element in John Coney's insane 1974 film Space is the Place.
Conceived as a vehicle for Sun Ra and his music, the film blends 50's sci-fi, 70's blaxploitation and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in an intense, provocative mix. The story, if you can call it that, involves Sun Ra, an intergalactic messenger sent to Earth to spread a message of peace and love and to take disaffected and downtrodden black Americans to his astral utopia. He finds opposition, however, in The Overseer (played by the excellently sleazy Ray Johnson), a white suited devil who cruises around in a huge Caddy with a woman on each arm. That The Overseer, like Sun Ra, is black underscores the film's point that sometimes oppression can come from within.
The film is structured as a series of matches of wits between the Overseer and Sun Ra, who basically bet on whether mankind can be educated and enlightened. Plenty happens to prove each man's perspective (and is tallied on something resembling an abacus hanging on a clothesline) while the Overseer laughs at what he sees as Ra's naivete. Meanwhile, Ra, confident in the spirit of man, smirks at his opponent.
There are a lot of other settings in the film and numerous characters. Early on Sun Ra (in his undercover Earth persona) plays piano at a Chicago strip joint while the Overseer sits in the audience. That scene, like many others, ends in an unexpectedly chaotic way: With the club bursting into flames. This scene also sets up the film's other main character, Jimmy Fey (the lively Christopher Brooks), who serves as the Overseer's right hand man (and second banana.)
The film takes its story in odd and silly directions but it's not an Ed Wood production. Director John Coney obviously took his diverse influences to heart. Ra's strange mythology informs the loopy style of the film but there's also winking humor, like when Ra appears in a youth center where the jaded urban kids goof on his clothes and odd mannerisms, or when he opens the "Outer Space Employment Agency" which attracts all types of bizarre applicants and features an amazingly strange theme song.
The final dramatic thrust of Space is the Place concerns Sun Ra's plan to put on a big show, a classic silly plot point whenever an orphanage or rec center needs to be saved; Except in this case it's mankind that needs saving. The point of this concert, however, is to elevate the minds of Ra's followers so they can join him on an intergalactic voyage. But with the Overseer and the racist white establishment looking to stop the show it's a race to the finish.
The anamorphic video looks reasonably good considering the age and obscurity of the film. Predictably the early parts of the film are most damaged but the bulk looks good. Colors are vibrant and the picture isn't too grainy. PlexiFilm has done a fine job with the transfer.
The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack similarly shows the limitations of the source material but is quite good. Some dialog is tough to make out (thanks most likely to the original recordings) but the music communicates the crazy sounds of Sun Ra's score well.
An interview with director John Coney and producer Jim Newman is the most useful extra. They discuss the film and Sun Ra in good detail. For such a strange program the creators prove plain-spoken and articulate. It definitely helps fill in the details.
A nice selection of home movies featuring Sun Ra and his musicians is interesting but even more so for the music that accompanies it: This is the viewer's chance to hear some of the musician's work on its own terms.
Rounding out this high-quality set is a selection of essays, including one by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, printed in the booklet that really add more depth to the whole Sun Ra experience. There is enough supplemental material in this set to help even the Sun Ra novice catch up and appreciate this unique artist better.
Adventurous viewers may find themselves drawn to the bizarre rhythms both of Sun Ra's music and of the movie itself. PlexiFilm, a small company that's really carving out a name for itself as a quality DVD producer, has put together a terrific package here. The technicals are fine and the supplements really help round out the strange experience. Sun Ra may have burbled below the radar of the mainstream but his outer-space act wasn't mere schtick. His music and image were imbued with a sense of otherworldly possibility. Coney got that and his movie is part-homage, part-spoof, part-inspiration.