Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011) was a politically conscious poet, songwriter, singer, and musician, who talked about the black experience in America with a mix of streetwise plainness and otherworldly transcendence. He is known to current music fans (if at all) for his swan-song collaboration with producer-of-the-moment Jamie XX, and maybe as the coiner of the phrase "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," in his song of the same name. The way he blended cleverly phrased spoken passages and sung verses is often credited with helping to pave the way for hip-hop music.
The newly remastered 1982 documentary Black Wax captures Scott-Heron in various types of performance, mostly during a show at Washington, D.C.'s Wax Museum Nightclub. Backed by a full funk band led by madman bassist Robert Gordon, Scott-Heron performs a bunch of then-new tunes and some older classics, running the stylistic gamut from the syncopated reggae of "Storm Music" to the salsa-inflected "Alien," before ending on a ten-minute-plus word-jazz takedown of Ronald Reagan called " 'B' Movie."
The film's director, music documentary specialist Robert Mugge, also intercuts the concert footage with clips of Scott-Heron walking around Washington, talking about the disparity between the average American's perceptions of D.C. and the reality facing the people who actually live there. He performs poems in locales similar to the ones that inspired them years ago. Sporadically, we are treated to Scott-Heron walking through neighborhoods with a ghetto blaster on his shoulder, singing along to his recorded lament for/tribute to the city, "Washington, D.C."
There are no talking-head interviews in the film, just the songs, the poems, and a stream-of-consciousness monologue that just flows freely from Scott-Heron at all times. We get a little bit of Scott-Heron's biography -- and a lot of his philosophy -- through his on-stage banter and direct-to-camera addresses. As a raconteur, he is smooth, wise, and often funny. A particular highlight is when he talks about his initial exposure to poetry, and how he and his peers figured it "must be deep," because it made no sense to them. If Mugge had nixed the music aspect altogether, one could conceive of Scott-Heron filling up an entire feature film with his own Spalding Gray-type narrative monologues.
As a portrait of an artist, Black Wax is nicely evocative, even if it never presents Gil Scott-Heron out of performance mode. As a concert film, it is well-mounted, with some semi-flashy early Steadicam work. As a document, it is surprisingly essential. Fans and neophytes alike need to take notice.