Rick James documentary dives deeper than rump-shaking hits
At the height of his Motown chart-topping career from the late 1970s to the 1980s, Rick James was considered the artist who saved the giant R&B record company of the 1960s.
The documentary “Bitchin ‘: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” tells all before and after the peak of its success. Director and executive producer Sacha Jenkins has put together an impressive array of footage and commentary that will keep you engaged and doing a lot of chair dancing. The film premieres September 30 on Showtime.
From his childhood in Buffalo, NY, until his death in 2004, all James, aka James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., wanted to do was release his music. He built a musical style based on many musical genres. His mother introduced him to jazz and blues, but by the time he started recording he had grown to love folk-rock, George Clinton and Sly Stone to punk. James put everything in a big barrel which he called “funk-punk”.
Along the way, he meets Neil Young with whom he forms a group called the Mynah Birds. Motown signed them. This Motown contract for James and Young would be brief because the Navy showed up. James found himself thrown into the brig for five weeks for being AWOL.
After serving time in the brig, James moved to Los Angeles and reconnected with his musical contemporaries in Toronto. Reconnection did not click. James returned to Motown and reunited a group made up of his Buffalo friends – the Stone City Band.
“He ended up changing the way Motown operated,” Jenkins said, noting the difference from James’ first stint on the label. “Before in Motown, a group of writers and producers would come together and dictate your style and sound. Rick James took care of everything in-house and did it himself.
The first album, “Come Get It!” in 1978 produced the hits “You & I” and “Mary Jane”. James, the Stone City Band and the backing vocals delivered electrifying sound and stage presence. Motown Founder and CEO Berry Gordy liked what he heard and saw with James.
“It all came from his travels and cross-pollination with a wide range of people,” Jenkins said. “You hear so many sounds and influences in ‘You and I’. It is this song that made him such a remarkable artist ”,
The attention of the “star” prompted James to adopt risky behavior. Drugs and explicit talk have become his norm. In 1981, “Street Songs” was his fifth and biggest album. This was in part due to the crossover song “Super Freak”. Supposedly, James wrote this song with a pop groove and lyrics he knew would be shouted over the holidays.
“’Super Freak’ was written for white kids at fraternity parties,” said Harry Weinger, vice president of A&R and product development at Universal / Motown.
James’ life took a path that seemed familiar at that time in the music business. Heavy drug use, missed performances and not paying your band have become the norm. His last album for Motown was unsuccessful, which resulted in him being released from the label.
After signing with Warner Records, James faced legal issues in addition to cocaine addiction. In 1993, James would be convicted of two separate cases of kidnapping and torturing two different women while under the influence of crack cocaine. The result: a three-year sentence in Folsom State Prison. After his release from prison, he suffered a stroke.
James gained new fame after being parodied in a sketch for Dave Chapelle’s Comedy Central series in 2004. James later died that year at the age of 56.
“Bitchin ‘: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” gives a lot. James’ daughter and executive producer of the film, Ty James, gives a glimpse into her father’s demons. Bootsy Collins and Ice Cube’s onscreen commentary reinforces James’ creativity and influence. His true relationship with Teena Marie is revealed.
“We wanted to give people a full picture of who he was,” Jenkins said. “He wasn’t perfect. He would have done horrible things. For some, he was doomed. Growing up, he suffered trauma and abuse. Maybe it influenced some of the decisions he made in life.
To learn more, visit the trailer for the movie “Bitchin ‘”, https://youtu.be/YV0tMF9Ue8g. You can also find out more by visiting https://www.facebook.com/RickJames