BR: Sun Ra – A Joyful Noise (1980)

February 25, 2016 | By

SunRaJoyfulNoise_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: MVD Visual

Region: A, B, C

Released: December 11, 2015

Genre:  Documentary / Jazz

Synopsis: Classic documentary of iconic and eccentric jazz musician, composer, poet, and cosmic Egyptian Sun Ra and his Arkestra, directed by Robert Mugge.

Special Features: Audio Gallery of extended film performances.




Robert Mugge’s debut as a documentarian was this auspicious hour-long piece on the inimitable Sun Ra, capturing the eccentric jazz man past his mid-sixties, still very active with his large band comprised of long-time regulars and newcomers ‘passing through’ for certain gigs, tours, and recordings – a process not different from Art Blakey, the hard bebop drummer who kept his house sound for decades while mentoring a wealth of new talent.

Born Herman Poole, Sun Ra changed his name in 1952 and pushed music that made use of a large jazz orchestra, diverse instruments, and a philosophy that embraced the Egyptian mythos, a flamboyant theatrical style, and exotic showmanship – the latter perhaps the most influential in terms of separating Sun Ra from his peers and colleagues.

Mugge’s doc begins with the pianist / keyboardist composer with his Arkestra on the roof of the Philadelphia International Center, engaged in performance art with the city below as an audience of unseen millions, and the roof as the band’s temple from which they makes musical offerings to the space gods.

Sun Ra’s philosophy melds a whole kettle of ideas that include a belief in aliens, and while he does sound and look a little loony, he’s still a band leader whose goal is to communicate using music, and mentor younger artists in believing they’re not cosmic Egyptians, but musicians who need to be pushed to the extremes of experimental music as well as traditional jazz styles; an intensive process of self-discovery which some of the interviewed musicians detail with immense respect for their mentor.

Although lauded by some critics as one of the best jazz docs of all time, it’s a very specific film on a precise time of an artist after he’d already broken many rules as far back as the forties and fifties, easing into a style that ensured he remained distinct but arguably marginalized by the mainstream labels and press because his persona and cosmic beliefs are so eccentric. Disinterested in being packaged by a major label, Sun Ra’s his own man, and that confidence is seen in the live performances covered by multiple cameramen who weave in and out, around, and on stage with the band as they perform vocal, all-instrument, free-form, and organized chaos.

Larry McConkey’s camerawork is first-rate, never missing a beat in catching small details in clean focus. Although better known as an ace Steadicam operator, McConkey also filmed Donald Cammell’s eerie serial killer desert thriller White of the Eye (1987).

What’s perhaps not fully resonant in the doc – no fault of Mugge – is the mass of knowledge and craftsmanship within Sun Ra; for better or worse, the pageantry is always up from, except in a handful of rare moments when the mentor is writing a piece and later shapes it with his assembled musicians, some of whom reside in the same house.

Mugge also intercuts performances and interviews with an amusing series of on-camera monologues where Sun Ra, garbed in a cosmic Egyptian costume, poetically describes his spacey philosophy beside massive carved statues in a museum’s ancient Egyptian collection.

The film’s title stems from a moment when Sun Ra describes the music he’s rehearsing with his Arkestra at home as ‘a joyful noise,’ sounds that aren’t going down well with his attached neighbours. A bit of an anarchist and eccentric artist, it’s a title that suits Sun Ra’s persona and immutable love of music.

As an intro to his canon, Mugge’s film may impress those with a palette for organized anarchy and performance art rather than straight jazz fans, but there’s more than a few samplings of his skills that should push a few viewers to exploring his massive discography.

MVD Visual’s HD transfer from the original 16mm elements is very sharp, and features a decent mono mix of the soundtrack. New digital titles replace older film titles (seen in prior releases), and there’s a separate music gallery of extended extracts from the performances.

Pity there’s no omnibus collection of Sun Ra on film, as there’s some rare material deserving proper HD remastering for home video. Among his appearances on film are The Magic Sun (1966), Space is the Place (1974), Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980), and Mystery Mister Ra (1984). He’s also credited as co-scoring the doc The Cry of Jazz (1959).

Among the most intriguing performance videos floating online / via YouTube is a set using a highly complex video synthesizer, the OVC, of which more info on the device is archived at its creator’s site, Bill Sebastian’s, as well as this lengthy Video Circuits entry.

Robert Mugge’s long filmography includes a wealth of music docs, such as Black Wax (1983), The Gospel According to Al Green (1984), Price and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records (1992), The Kingdom of Zydeco (1994), Saxophone Colossus (1998), and Blues Divas (2005).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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