SPACE IS THE PLACE
A review of the sci fi, blaxploitation, concert film
by David Kerekes
DECKED IN THE FINE REGALIA of a pharoah and flanked by two golden familiars, an elderly black man materialises in the middle of a downtown social club where black youth are enjoying themselves singing, chatting and playing games. The young people stop in their tracks, bemused by the eccentric vision before them.
“Greetings black youth of planet Earth,” says the stranger. “I am Sun Ra, ambassador from the intergalactic regions of the council of outerspace.”
The response is one of scepticism. Some members of the group question the mysterious visitor, who responds with silence and a benign smile.
“Why are your shoes so big?”
“Are those moon shoes?”
“How do we know you’re fo’ real?”
“Yeah, how do we know you’re not somebody else, telegraphed to promote shit or somethin’?”
“Who are you?”
“What kind of shoes is that you got on your feet?”
“Yeah, what are all those funny clothes? Shit, I’m about to take off runnin’ if somebody walkin’ down the street talkin’ about [inaudible] me going to outerspace.”
“Is he fo’ real?”
This is a sequence that appears in the movie Space Is the Place. The movie is a pretty topsy-turvy affair and this sequence isn’t staged, but reflects the very real reaction of the public when confronted with the musician known as Sun Ra. In this instance the public happens to be black but it’s unlikely it would be any less aghast if it were red, white or blue.
Sun Ra lowers his smile to finally respond to the jibes and laughter.
“How do you know I’m real?” he says. “I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did you people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as a myth. Because that’s what black people are. Myths. I came from a dream that black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a present sent to you by your ancestors.”
Next to the other writers in this book I would class myself a novice when it comes to Sun Ra. Although conscious of Sun Ra’s cultural cache and considerable influence as a musician for some time, my first real exposure to the music occurred only relatively recently. It was a scratchy vinyl copy of Helicocentric Worlds, Volume 2, left for me on my doorstep by a gentleman friend of a neighbour called Mutley. It was some time before I got round to listening to it. What struck me when I did was how far out it sounded for 1965, the year of its release. I studied the packaging carefully for clues.
Comprising only three tracks, the music on Helicocentric Worlds, Volume 2 is very loose and as I listened I waited for a song to start, or at the very least the essence of a riff upon which I could get my ears into gear. Nothing; there is no margin for my ears on that album. That is until halfway through side two, when the music on a track called Cosmic Chaos suddenly locks in a groove and refuses to let go. It is a kind of hip hop recursion of everything else on the album and way ahead of its time, emerging some years before hip hop would eventually manifest in the Bronx to take down the world.
The strange beat went on for nearly twenty minutes before I realised the locked grove was indeed a locked groove and the needle was stuck on Mutley’s scratchy record.
I concluded my listening. The album is ‘experimental’ and while I understand Sun Ra’s music often foretastes contemporary styles, hip hop on Heliocentric Worlds, Volume 2 isn’t one of them.
A sobering introduction to The Ra, as it is a lesson for anyone who would go looking for clues. Nonetheless it failed to put me in any better stead for my next exposure to the musician from Saturn. Space Is the Place is a remarkable mixed up movie that masquerades as science fiction while dallying with a wealth of other cinematic forms, notably documentary, art house, blaxploitation and the concert film. It stars Sun Ra as himself, who comes to Oakland, California, in a spaceship with his crew the Arkestra. Ignoring the convolutions of style and form, the story that unfolds is a relatively straightforward one: Sun Ra’s mission is to save the Earth through music, predominately the black man with whom he shares an affinity. Concert performances succeed in creating a greater rift with the white man, but it is actually an entity called the Overseer that is the real nemesis, a black pimp devil with whom Sun Ra must do battle on a psychic plane. Ultimately Sun Ra fails to save anybody and leaves Earth moments before it explodes.
This fictional narrative, at times improvised and underscored with endearingly cheesy special effects, is intercut with Sun Ra espousing his philosophical and political beliefs direct to camera. The movie is fragmented further by avant-garde intermissions, such as the Arkestra taking a psychedelic walk, or a mysterious encounter with the Overseer at a table in the middle of nowhere. Whenever the story disengages from the plot it never seems to fully engage with it again. It picks up instead someplace else, flip-flopping between characters we don’t fully understand.
No surprise at all that following a brief theatrical run in 1974 the movie dropped from the radar to languish in obscurity—not so much forgotten as completely ignored. A quick perusal of the key books on cult and fantasy movies of this era reveals not a single reference to Space Is the Place. There is no mention of it in the heavyweight Aurum encyclopaedia of science fiction either, or the usually reliable NME guide to rock cinema. Indeed, the movie has only emerged as a “cult classic” thanks to the resuscitative power of DVD. “Cult classic” is an accolade as instant as packet-soup but in this instance a deserved one.
The notion of music as the means of intergalactic communication appears again a few years later in Steven Spielberg’s considerably more coherent Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). An altogether more sobering influence however would be on the rock monolith Led Zeppelin, whose very own cinematic folly The Song Remains the Same (1976) similarly befuddles fantastical elements with concert footage.
What sets Space Is the Place apart as a unique piece of cinema is, of course, the presence of Sun Ra. This is his one and only foray into feature films and from all accounts an experience he rather enjoyed. He travels through the movie in a sort of diasporan blur, not really on the same plane as the actors around him. There is a sense that Sun Ra is merely an observer; an umlaut on the story of which he is a part. He marks time until ready to perform his music or provide a theory or two, be it racist or existential. He is a magnetic presence for sure, unafraid of ridicule in order to stand apart.
The scene in which he appears in the community hall and responds with noble aplomb to the jibes and questions of the black youth to me best sums up this film and the strange attraction of its star.