The Music Will Set You Free
Step into the realms o’space where nobody goes
Only the baddest motherfuckas are the ones that are chose!
Some of the coolest individuals on the planet we said
Best believe that we can buck or give a damn if we cared!
—Big Boi “Bust,” Speakerboxx/The Love Below
The people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits. Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe.
2003 was the year that hip-hop truly ruled, and it was also the year when Sun Ra’s cult classic Space Is the Place was reissued as a 30th Anniversary special on DVD. If the film is the definitive model of where blaxploitation intersects with sci-fi, as it has so often been regarded, then 2003 was an appropriate year for its return.
It was a year in music when the gangster rapper—the baadasss nigga—kicked off the year with the most record sales, and the funkadified otherworldly ones, preaching love and self-and-social consciousness were deemed best artists by the critics and music awarding institutions alike. 50 Cent, in all his materialist, sexist, pimpoligist glory, didn’t win a Grammy, just like the overseer, played by Ray Johnson, in Space Is the Place, didn’t win over the souls of black folks. Meanwhile Andre 3000 and Big Boi—hip-hop’s messiahs—could be likened to Sun Ra, in all his Pharonic grandeur, musically teleporting black souls to that parallel universe, which is something much beyond this place called earth.
That the music, in the form of free jazz, is the message and Sun Ra the messenger in this film comes as no surprise. This was always the artist’s shtick. His mythic science loomed quite largely throughout all of his musical masterpieces. He denounced earth as his home, opting instead for an affiliation with Saturn and an embracement of the mythology of ancient Egypt. For Sun Ra, music was not about getting rich or dying while trying, but instead it was a tone science in which the artist is supposed to find the right tone and key that resonates with his spirit so that his music can in turn be spiritually uplifting to the people. The sharp dissonance Sun Ra created as he pioneered the use of electronic music making machines, like Moog synthesizers, was his deliverance from the outerworld to humanity, to bring about harmony. In essence he was futurizing the rhythm machine as a posthuman, stepping into this other self and away from his human self, to fully realize what it means to be humane.
This is exactly what the 82 minutes of Space Is the Place is meant to convey. It was Sun Ra’s way of preaching his cosmology to the masses. In story form, it becomes the typical good vs. evil epic.
When Sun Ra and his Arkestra, donning Egyptian garb, land in a ‘70s Oakland, California ghetto from their parallel universe, historically it’s a complex time in Black USA. The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The entitlements offered by this Act had not yet become much of a reality for black folks. In fact, they were downtrodden and living in despair.
“The people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits. Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe. Since they don’t have money, they don’t have anything. If the planet takes hold of an alter destiny, there’s hope for all of us. But otherwise the death sentence upon this planet still stands. Everyone must die,” Sun Ra observes.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Enter the Overseer. Often, and especially in blaxploitation films, the overseer is associated with “the man.” But this flick offers a twist wherein it’s the slick, flashy, jive-talking, Superfly-cool black man in a white suit. So here the meaning of overseer becomes perverse, in that it’s the black man who is at the center of his own oppression and destruction on planet earth. The overseer offers a life of corruption, while Sun Ra offers jobs and an escape from earth before it’s destroyed.
Most of the film highlights this battle, depicted like a chess match, between Sun Ra and the Overseer to gain mind control of the people. But there are also white racists, in the form of NASA clowns, who seek to shut Sun Ra and his intergalactic movement down. Everything comes to a head when Sun Ra is to have a concert, in which the music will finally get through to the people and provide them with that journey to out of space. This music is interspersed throughout the film, and actually may be the best part of the film. When the Arkestra performs, with their elaborate costumes, polyrhythmic overtures, and June Tyson’s eerie voice harmonizing the message the film has been trying to convey all along, this is when you finally get it.
From the outset you know that it is music that powers Sun Ra’s spaceship, so the spaceship becomes a metaphor for the black mind, in fact the black soul. If music powers the alien-like machine that transports one to an alternate reality where they can experience an alternate self, then music can power an alien-like black self to do the same. What further supports this magical notion, is when the radio announcer, the primary character who represents the masses as Sun Ra and The Overseer fight over his soul, has his black part teleported to the parallel universe while his white part remains on earth to be destroyed along with it. Of course there are moments throughout the film, where its overall message gets confounded. To say the acting is amateurish and the script a tad bit weak is of course an understatement. But that it hits home in the end reveals that the director, John Coney, really got Sun Ra. In many ways the film is biopic, given all of Sun Ra’s ruminations about who he actually was and the purpose of his free jazz. Because of this, a viewer of Space Is the Place might get the feeling that there should be more music there. More is offered though, as backdrop to Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s home movies as they visited Egypt in ‘72, along with other mystical visual aids.
Other features to this edition of this film include an interview with director John Coney and producer Jim Newman, and a deluxe booklet with liner notes by Sun Ra biographer John Szwed, introduction by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and an essay by director John Coney. These additions do much for filling in the blanks about the film, and especially about Sun Ra and his myth science.
Not that it’s a bad film, but perhaps only true Sun Ra devotees, and those hoping to learn more about the artist would only really appreciate it. His obstinate message of going back to the past to be an integral part of the future hints at the notion that the only way for a black soul to exist on earth is to consider himself an alien. Down with the guns, war, and materialism, symbolizing the corruptive ways of the overseer, and accept love, and your alieness as your universal savior. And isn’t that just the way the year of music went down in 2003?
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article