‘Sun Ra: a Joyful Noise’ and the Joy of Ra’s Mythocracy

This film serves as an excellent way to try to begin to comprehend the enigma that was Sun Ra.
Sun Ra
MVD Visual

Sun Ra might have been one of the most influential figures in jazz history, and perhaps in all of popular music. His works have been covered by a wide range of bands such as NRBQ and Yo La Tengo; and many more have made it clear that the man’s often-strange and always interesting musical legacy left a huge impact on them and, consequently, their work. George Clinton of P-Funk, for example, drew inspiration from Sun Ra to the point of developing his own personal mythology, P-Funk mythology, which has a number of similarities with Ra’s personal brand of Afrofuturistic mythology.

Ra was also notable for his pioneering use of electronics in jazz, something that hadn’t been utilized as extensively before his music was popularized. Although the Intergalactic Omniverse Arkestra released much of their work in relative obscurity, they had become at least slightly well-acknowledged in the jazz community by the time that A Joyful Noise was shot, thanks to the many musicians singing their praise.

Filmed from 1978 to 1980, Robert Mugge’s Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise serves not only as a performance film, but as a record of the famous composer-keyboardist-bandleader’s truly and purposefully odd personal and professional life.

The performances, filmed in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., are great examples of the way Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) was capable of harnessing the talent and presence of his legendary Intergalactic Omniverse Arkestra to put on a dazzling show. The songs from the selected performances, including “Astro Black”, “We Travel the Spaceways”, “Along Came Ra/The Living Myth”, “Requiem for Trevor Johnson”, and many more, are sprawling and musically complex; they feel like very separate worlds concocted by Ra, ever-changing when performed live.

The extras on the Blu-ray disc include extended audio from the performances which, although not too much of a deviation from what you’d expect given the performances that made it into the body of the film, are certainly worth watching.

The venues, Danny’s Hollywood Palace in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia International Center and the Baltimore Famous Ballroom, seem to accommodate Ra quite well. About 20 years after the release of this initial film, it was screened during the 2001 Baltimore Film Festival in the former Baltimore Famous Ballroom, which had since become a part of the Charles Theater.

The music is spot on, the Arkestra working as one to create a sound that seems otherworldly, which was most certainly Ra’s intent. The front man’s charismatic stage presence feels natural, as though it’s just one of many working parts of the beautiful and strange thing that was the Arkestra. The sound is large, sometimes off-kilter and always oddly inviting. Although most fans of the group’s recorded material will say that experiencing the music on record is always satisfying, one has to wonder what it must have been like for the various audiences that congregated for these shows over 30 years ago.

Sun-Ra: A Joyful Noise was first released directly following the filming of the production in 1980 at the International House Philadelphia. Throughout Mugge’s involvement with Ra, he managed to film several interviews with the jazz great, as well as an up close and personal look at his home (which he shared with his bandmates, commune style) in Philadelphia. Although the film is a good 60 minutes long, by its closure the viewer may still feel distanced from Ra, yet more understanding of his mystique. It’s something the man constructed with his music, his poetry, his philosophy and in the generally unconventional way in which he led his long life.

During one interview, Ra has painted his face with blue make up, bound his head with some sort of very colorful netting and donned a Lone Ranger-like mask; all relatively tame fare given the man’s interests in truly bizarre fashion, but living proof that he took his personal cosmic philosophy quite seriously. During his interviews, Ra speaks on everything from the youth of the day to his personal beliefs about his mysterious beginnings.

Although Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise has been available for viewing several times since its initial release, this particular offering has been painstakingly transferred from 16mm film to an HD format, creating a crisp, dense and colorful picture. Is this movie one that many folks have probably seen before? The answer is yes, especially if you are a hardcore Ra fan. For the rest of us, this film serves as an excellent way to try to begin to comprehend the enigma that was Sun Ra.

RATING 9 / 10