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Shock Corridor Cinema Presents: Sun Ra & Wesley Willis in a rare meeting of the minds

Tue. October 14th 2003 8:00 pm
Shock Corridor Cinema
@the fifty fifty arts collecitve
416 Craigflower Rd.

Space is the Place (John Coney, 1974; 65 min)

"An artifact of a time when the hangover of the late 1960s met the disillusioned 1970s; black power and free jazz collided with the fashion sense of SUPERFLY. SPACE IS THE PLACE is the PUTNEY SWOPE of jazz films."

Nothing about Sun Ra's (born, Herman "Sonny" Blount) six-decade musical career could be called normal. He recorded somewhere around 200 albums, although no one knows for sure. He toured the world, was revered in Europe, and staged at least three 100 piece concerts, one at the pyramids in Egypt. Ra was deeply spiritual, and his live shows encompassed all of these elements. They were several hour ritualistic ceremonies featuring a lively orchestra of a dozen or more players (referred to as the "Arkestra"), poetry, light shows, dancers, and marches through the audience. He was the subject of several films, pioneered the use of electronic keyboards like the Moog synthesizer, created his own independent record label, Saturn Records out of his band's communal home in Philadelphia and influenced countless jazz and rock musicians, most notably George Clinton and his P-Funk/Funkadelic outfits.

Ra's philosophy was drenched in his unique cosmic mysticism, one that for many years was misunderstood by the jazz press who marginalized his band while favouring the more traditional big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie of the 1950s. The arkestra's elaborate costumes coupled with Ra's penchant for astrological references led people to beleive he was somewhat of a circus act, not really tied to the jazz tradition in any respectable way. Many missed the mark here as Sun Ra's purpose was one of Black Nationalism, couched in a way that perhaps was not as threatening to the dominant culture as say, Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" disclaimer.

Cosmic blaxploitation cum sociological critique, SPACE IS THE PLACE defies categorization. It is at once a platform for Sun Ra's radical racial philosophies, an indictment of the government's policies in Vietnam-era U.S., cult camp flick, sci-fi movie and concert film with unforgettable performances by the Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra.

SPACE IS THE PLACE captures Ra's Arkestra at a time when the Blaxploitation film was in full swing. This film movement of the early 70s marked the studios first attempt to produce films for Black audiences. While they certainly produced rugged protagonists, making stars out of such actors as Pam Grier, titles such as Super Fly and Coffy tended to either exoticize black culture or merely ghettoize it by highlighting its difference and thus reduced by trivialization. SPACE IS THE PLACE is perhaps a more responsible Blaxploitation film. Informed by wonderfully kitchy sci -fi gimmicks, the film it makes a case for black communites to reconsider their position in an America that oppresses them while maintaining a playful approach to both the band's politics and the spirit of the Arkestra's live shows

After having traveled through space in a yellow spaceship propelled by music, Sun Ra finds a planet he believes could serve as a new home for the black race. Returning to earth, he lands in Oakland, California circa 1972 (the birthplace of the Black Panther Party) and has to fight The Overseer, played by Ray Johnson (from 1971's DIRTY HARRY), a supernatural villain who pimps out the black race. Sun Ra offers those who would follow him into space an "alter-destiny," but the Overseer, the FBI, and NASA--who are after Ra's Black Space Program--ultimately force him to return to space before the destruction of Earth. The narrative intersects with fabulous live footage of the arkestra which add insight rather than deter from the plot's progression. A classic film which has yet to see wide release both in theaters and on home video. Don't Miss it!

The Daddy of Rock n' Roll (David Britton; 2003; 60 min.)

Rock over London... Rock on Chicago... The Big W will rock your world!!!! Like Sun Ra, Wesley Willis has at times been misunderstood and for some, reduced to a novelty act for the amusement of the ignorant. For those unaware, Wesley Willis was a Chicago icon who rapidly achieved cult status. He began his career singing on the street, accompanied by his Technics KN 2000 keyboard. He was soon playing opening slots for local bands, and later recording songs as an homage to these performances (i.e.- "Urge Overkill", "Swervedriver", "Foo Fighters", "The Frogs"). In 1989, Wesley was diagnosed as schizophrenic; he explains that writing, performing, and recording help quiet the voices in his head. His songs are simultaneously disturbing, hilarious, blunt, and intoxicating. Wesley's sheer excitement and unaffected honesty about every cultural phenomenon, from a city bus ride to McDonalds, coupled with a refreshingly wacky sense of humor, define his music as truly individual. Played frequently on the nationally syndicated Doctor Demento Show and featured in major publications, Wesley has rubbed elbows with everyone from Steve Albini to the Beastie Boys' Mike D. Apart from self-releasing dozens of CDs, Wesley has two albums on American Recordings.

Wesley Willis stood 6'5" tall and weighed somewhere between 300 and 350 pounds prior to contracting leukemia, and liked to greet people with a head-butt. Wesley enjoyed walking the streets of Chicago, peddling his detailed ballpoint/felt-tip renderings of the city and riding around on the bus. On October 21, 1989, he began hearing voices and was shortly thereafter diagnosed as having chronic schizophrenia. Willis claimed to have "schizophrenia demons" in his head that take him off of his "harmony joy rides" to put him on "torture hell rides".

THE DADDY OF ROCK N" ROLL is best described as a document of Willis' DIY approach to creating music and art. The film captures Willis roaming through the streets of Chicago gathering fodder for his music: Interactions with the public on public bus rides, lyric composition at the local Kinkos, collecting books about animals - "songs about bestiality are needed to keep the demons out of my head" he tells one clerk at the zoo's gift shop). Willis' mental health condition is not highlighted for sentimental effect, rather, the filmmaker illustrates the extent to which Willis lives with his schizophrenia in the same way he lives with his music: it's a part of daily life and need not eclipse the banality of the every day. Still Willis' brash humour stands out throughout the film and while we are never laughing at him we certainly enjoy laughing with him. Sadly Willis' passed on shortly following the production of this film.