Sun Ra in Oakland: Space is the Place

Sun Ra in Oakland: Space is the Place

A politicized class of musicians was really first completely realized to be in existence during the ‘60s. It was a decade that saw great masses of people engaged in various revolts against the government for different reasons and at different times. These organizations, though, didn’t spring up out of nowhere, fully formed and prepared to be assaulted by the police and National Guardsmen. If one desires to get all high falutin’, this whole idea of rebellion could be traced back to the American Revolution – that’d be a tenuous link, although rather easily made. Band leader, composer and pianist Sun Ra, though, began his work towards freeing black folks from a perceived tyranny in the ‘50s while living and working in Chicago.

Ra became a proponent of ancient civilizations – Egypt in particular – and thought that a great many tenets from the past should be reapplied during his life in order to re-instill a sense of self worth in the black community. His band, which was used partially as a vehicle for Ra’s quest, wasn’t making music that would be consumed by the general public. But the band leader was angling for a broad and general cultural revolt. He had in mind the freedom of his people. And since his music alone wasn’t going to be able to reach everyone, he endeavored to work with the film medium.

The shooting of Space is the Place and its final product won’t leave fans dedicated to the craft of film with wide eyes. Admittedly, the movie and its obtuse, indecipherable plot can’t make it a feature that people are going to want to revisit time and time again. Again, though, the message that Sun Ra seeks to impart trumps the movie’s construction.

There are scenes with Ra entering various social situations to explain the oppression that his people have faced and how to fix the problem. When explaining all of this to a room full of teenaged Oakland pool players – apart from the fact that everyone’s a bad actor – Ra’s met with a healthful dose of indifference. He does manage to wrangle a few folks as he promises to take the well meaning (race-wide) on a spaceship with him.

Some bizarre subplot begins the narrative and persists through the entirety of Space is the Place. It involves Sun Ra and some malevolent force playing chess in an assumed homage to Bergman’s filmic oeuvre. The quotation is kind of unsettling in a way detached from when Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey made use of a similar trope. The result of this chess game in Ra’s movie, though, has nothing to do with Death. It has to do with his ability to put on a concert to spread his message.

Despite not sporting an engaging plot – or even a readily identifiable one – the musical performances by the Arkestra scattered throughout the film’s run time are worth hunting down the DVD. The music is of Ra’s latter period making use of noise as much as melody. But watching him attack those old tymey looking synthesizers is pretty entertaining.