The films of Robert Mugge engage crucially not only with the sounds but also the philosophies of the artists whose work they explore, and it is difficult to imagine two more philosophically engaged artists than the incendiary songwriter/vocalist Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011) and the exploratory keyboardist, composer and bandleader Sun Ra (1914-1993). In two classic documentaries, newly remastered for Blu-ray and DVD by MVD Visual, Mugge mounts the stages on which these ineffable creators plied their deeply felt trades.
In 1982’s Black Wax, Mugge captures a Washington, D.C., performance featuring Scott-Heron and his Midnight Band (under the guidance of bassist and “Secretary of Entertainment” Robert Gordon), interspersed with casually graceful scenes of the vocalist guiding the viewer on a “tour” of the nation’s capital. Scott-Heron puts caustic verbal thumbscrews to iconic figures of the American past and, in poetic verse, excoriates the poverty thriving in the inner cities while “Whitey’s on the moon.” Scott-Heron is leftist in his views, but he declares himself merely a member of the “Common Sense Party,” his cultural role that of a “bluesologist.”
As Scott-Heron weaves masterfully evocative word pictures on the anti-drug “Angel Dust,” the subliminally furious “Winter in America” and the still too-sadly-relevant “Gun,” the Midnight Band, powered by Gordon, percussionist Larry MacDonald and keyboardist Glenn “Astro” Turner, weave plush, inviting grooves, deftly complemented by Mugge’s butter-smooth camera. (Black Wax was one of the first films to make extensive use of then-new Steadicam technology.) The film clarifies and strengthens Scott-Heron’s identity as a revolutionary thinker who was also a potent, captivating entertainer. It’s a shot of bitter medicine that goes down silky smooth.
While Scott-Heron was slugging it out at ground level, Sun Ra’s music always sought to transcend petty concerns like money, politics-even the fate of the planet on which its composer was born. In 1980’s Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, Mugge again interlaces live performances of Ra and his Arkestra with sequences in which the bandleader expounds on his wildly cosmic visions of humanity, space and the true meaning of music. “Whatever man thinks is the greatest thing,” Ra declares, “I have to rise above that, because I have to judge a tree by the fruit.”
The fruit Ra bore is present in the film’s performance excerpts, fusing free-jazz conceptions with Ra’s deep understanding of the totality of black music. The bandleader’s mandating of a regimented performance and rehearsal style, onstage wardrobe and lifestyle for his musicians might lead one to mistake Ra for a cult leader. But the proof of the creative freedom Ra afforded those musicians, a freedom that belies the very nature of a cult, is exemplified in interview segments with Arkestra tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, who praises Ra for introducing him to “higher forms of music,” and drummer James Jacson, who says Ra’s guidance led him to achievements he never could have imagined, such as building a drum from the trunk of a lightning-struck tree. But really, all the proof one needs is in the faces of Ra’s musicians, who beam with genuine gratitude as they join their leader in communal audiovisual adventures like the exultant performance of Ra’s iconic “We Travel the Spaceways” that concludes the film.
A Joyful Noise is a more abstract experience than Black Wax, fitting the esoteric nature of its subject. (No Steadicam here; the concert footage is handheld, fast-moving, as if trying to capture the creation of every note.) But with both Ra and Scott-Heron, Mugge’s films honor the singular worldviews of their subjects and the important sounds through which they expressed their hearts and minds.