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Sun Ra's Space Is The Place

Chicago, 1943. A dressed-down Sunny Ray sits coolly at the piano, fingering out half-hearted chords for an audience that's not even remotely entertained—at least until the dancers return to the stage. They do, but before they can get down to the naked flesh the crowd's truly there to see, our seemingly mild-mannered man at the ivories decides he's had enough of degrading his talents for so baseless an entertainment medium. He proceeds to unleash a flurry of dissonance that tears through the entire club, effectively clearing the building with a gale-force torrent of sound that leaves only one person still seated in its aftermath—the Overseer.

Thus begins the battle for the soul of the black race that occupies most of Space Is The Place. On one hand, it's a fairly simplistic and classic clash of good vs. evil—Sun Ra's complex and often convoluted philosophies boiled down to a sci-fi Blaxploitation epic. Once he drops his Clark Kent-ish masquerade, Sun Ra reveals himself as the savior of oppressed black folk come from outer space, complete with all the intergalactic-Egyptian bling-bling that was his live performance stock in trade. And his opponent? The Overseer—essentially the same mythic Old Scratch that bartered for Robert Johnson's soul down at the crossroads—whose mission is to keep black people doped up with big cars, liquor, fancy clothes and white women.

But upon a deeper look, although the plot might be an essentialized version of Ra's cosmology in and of itself, the film does an admirable job in retaining the complexity found in the man from Saturn's difficultly profound character. Ra's own presence in the film is only a part of this—his self-written lines certainly convey his ideas much better than a screenwriter would, but there are other, stronger images that show just how well the producers truly understood his beliefs. Take, just for one example, the scene where the militant black teenagers come upon the drunk outside the Oakland youth center. On the surface, it's another juxtaposition between right and wrong in the context of early 70s black culture, yet they make fun of him and steal his shoes when he's passed out. In other words, there's not so much "good" separating the righteous and the addicted as may appear from a superficial glance.

I could go on for paragraphs detailing the ways in which Space Is The Place brings Sun Ra's vision to Technicolor life, deconstructing scenes until I've got a PhD on the wall. But, as someone who has seen the original VHS issue of the film several times, I'm also interested in the differences that Plexifilm's new DVD release brings to the table. From a technical perspective, the digital transfer marks an improvement over the original, even if it's still a bit grainy; still, it's hard to complain about the visual quality when the DVD extras and restored footage add so much to the overall experience.

The DVD is touted as returning the film to its original feature length, which it does by adding almost 20 minutes' worth of deleted scenes. The majority of the restored footage doesn't serve much purpose beyond bumping the rating up to "R" from "PG-13", but a few segments toward the end of the film portray the Overseer character in a significantly more evil light—giving the movie a slightly darker tone than that seen in the original VHS issue. Without giving too much away, let's just say that the final scene where "white" Jimmy Fey (left behind after Sun Ra takes the "black" part with him to partake in the new, post-Earth black civilization) pays a final visit to the Overseer adds another dimension to the true depths of Ra's victory.

As for the extras, even though the DVD only contains two brief features beyond the film itself, their value will be of utmost value to serious Sun Ra aficionados. The first is a collection of home movies showing Ra and members of the Arkestra visiting the pyramids in Egypt and rehearsing at the Morton Street "House of Ra" in Philadelphia. The lack of sound is frustrating (the movie soundtrack version of "Watusa" plays along with the footage), but the ability to see them in any form far outweighs that minor drawback. The other is a short interview with Space Is The Place's director John Coney and producer Jim Newman, which allows them to speak for themselves about their grasp of Ra's philosophies—and, as was all too common for anyone who worked with the enigmatic bandleader, to say that they have some fantastic (and amusing) anecdotes to share would indeed be an understatement.

I'm sure that Bubbles—the film's gum-chomping, rhetoric-spewing young revolutionary-to-be—would agree that even if Space Is The Place isn't a perfect film, it's a downright heavy one if you choose to open yourself up to that style of interpretation. But regardless of its cinematic value, it's an essential piece of Sun Ra's legacy, especially as preserved for a new generation of the man's followers in this DVD edition. And, to quote the Overseer in a moment of particular appreciation for Ra's audacity, "that's what I call cookin' with grease".