“There’s a Lot to Unpack”: The Dark and Difficult Life of Rick James | Documentary

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IIn the heartbreaking new music documentary, Bitchin: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, we see a star torn in two. On the one hand, there’s Rick James who created some of the most popular, distinct, and outrageous funk music of the late ’70s and early’ 80s. On the other, there’s a man so lost in his desire for sex, drugs and the recognition that his life has become an obstacle course strewn with landmines. “Rick created a situation where it would be difficult not to have a bad result,” said director Sacha Jenkins. “It couldn’t have been easy being Rick James.”

Likewise, it wouldn’t have been easy for Jenkins to fairly balance the story of someone whose creativity and joy were graced with so much obscurity. At its most fascinating, James’ life has brought him into the orbit of an incredible roster of top musicians, including Levon Helm, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Jim Morrison. At its heartbreaking, her life involved either cases or charges of child abuse, sex with minors, kidnapping, rape, torture and drug trafficking. “There’s a lot to unbox with Rick James,” Jenkins said. “But once you do, the man he’s become starts to make sense.”

To achieve this, the film includes interviews with his daughter, Ty James, his second wife, Tanya, his manager, as well as members of his skillful group, the Stone City Band. They, with a few surprisingly conscious voiceover quotes from James himself, complete a story rooted in Buffalo, New York, in the 1950s. It’s a place that the musician’s brother describes in the film as “one. of the most racist cities in America ”. Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr to a family of eight, his father separated at the age of 10. To support the family, her mother had an illegal business that managed numbers. “Rick was introduced to vice at a very young age,” Jenkins said.

At the same time, he was introduced to a lot of important music. His mother let him follow when she went to nightclubs where jazz stars were playing, from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis. Although James had no formal musical training, he learned to play on his own as a child. Music interested him far more than school, which he dropped out when he reached mid-adolescence. At that time, he was into drugs and petty theft. The latter led to several stays in prison. In 1964, James was drafted into the Vietnam War, but he failed, fleeing to Toronto, Canada. This is where his incredible ability to meet key people began. When he arrived in town he was attacked by a bunch of drunks but the guy who came to his rescue was the band’s future drummer, Levon Helm. James ended up performing with then-Helm’s band and soon became a member of a local music scene in Toronto that featured future stars Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Changing his name to James to avoid detection by the US military, he forms a group with Young called the Mynah Birds. The group included another future Buffalo Springfield member, bassist Bruce Palmer, as well as Nick St Nicholas, later of Steppenwolf. The Mynah Birds signed to Motown, despite the fact that their mix of rock, folk and soul, which included songs co-written by James and Young, bore no resemblance to the work of other artists on the label. Mynah Birds YouTube clips show James singing in a style that might sound like a young Mick Jagger. “Deep down, Rick was a rock and roll,” Jenkins said.

Unfortunately for James, an associate of the group sent him back to the military, which resulted in him spending time in jail and the disappearance of the Mynah Birds. After serving his sentence, James traveled to LA where he ran with the likes of Stephen Stills, Jim Morrison and Jay Sebring, the celebrity hairstylist who was among those slain at Sharon Tate’s house the night of the Manson murders. (James was invited to the house that night but was too tired to go.) Given his connection to such a crazy fan of history, Jenkins describes James as “the Forrest Gump of funk.” He was everywhere. And people were happy to have him because he was a cool black dude who knew great music. There weren’t many brothers who were in bands like Buffalo Springfield at the time. In that sense, he looks more like children of color today, whose influences are very broad. “

While James had several promising bands at the time, none of them excited the majors enough to sign them, so he resorted to drugs to survive. It wasn’t until the age of 30, after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts, that he found his sound. James formulated it in Buffalo with local musicians he dubbed the Stone City Band, taking inspiration from George Clinton’s rippling funk. “Rick took the music in his own direction,” Jenkins said. “He mixed disco and funk.”

Photography: Mark Weiss

James’ first three albums, starting with Come Get It from 1978, featured a very focused sound and image, based on highly dancing party hymns with lyrics that preached a creed of unfettered hedonism. The album even included a marijuana love song, Mary Jane, making James a stoner icon. At the same time, his music contained elements of progressive jazz and displayed a musicality lost to some. The result especially found an echo with the black public, who made their albums golden hits. In 1980, James’ fourth outing, Garden of Love, deepened his perspective by including love songs as well as a track, Big Time, which telegraphed his fear of the very indulgences of celebrity that ended up doing so. publication date. At the same time, he yearned for this level of fame. He finally reached it in 1981 with the mega-hit Super Freak, a new wave-infused dance cut designed to appeal to white audiences. Ironically, the album that contained the hit, Street Songs, contained James’ most socially conscious songs, with lyrics that spoke of the ghetto life of his youth. The result proved that he was more than just a purveyor of party music. His mega-hit also saw him serve as a producer of other acts, creating hits for The Mary Jane Girls, Teena Marie, The Temptations and others. In the film, James wryly explains why he wrote so well for women artists. “I’ve been such an asshole to them,” he said, “I can reverse and write from their point of view.”

By the time his daughter, Ty James, met him, he was living the high life in every sense of the word. Her mother had abducted her two children, including Rick Jr., when they were children, cutting off all contact due to his uncontrollable behavior. While the musician lived in luxury, they barely scratched the hardest part of LA. Only an astonishing coincidence, detailed in the film, reunited the children with their father. “It was a real culture shock,” Ty James told The Guardian of his first meeting with his father. “We didn’t own a car and, when Rick came to pick us up, it was like, ‘Do you want to get in the Rolls-Royce or the Mercedes or the Excalibur?’

Even more shocking was the lifestyle James led. Ty woke up regularly to find women passed out on the floor after being up all night partying with his father. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” she said. “But it almost seemed like a normal life after a while.”

Despite his inability to become a parent, Ty has warm things to say about his father. “I was daddy’s girl,” she says. “We had a lot of fun and we were spending time together. At the same time, I became a parent. I would be on my guard all the time to find out who was bringing drugs into the house, ”she said.

In one incident, the star threw an object at Ty, cutting her off enough to send her to the hospital. Yet she forgave him because, even as a teenager, she understood that “it is practically impossible to stop an addict,” she says. “It’s a physical addiction.

Rick James 9/9/83 in Merrilville, In. At various locations, (Photo by Paul Natkin / WireImage)
Photograph: Paul Natkin / WireImage

Beyond drugs, James was also addicted to sex. An endless stream of women showed up at his home for decades, despite his second marriage – to Tanya who was, at the time, the same age as her daughter: 17. (James was 39 at the time.) Due to his treatment. women in general, many people today might consider James a misogynist. Jenkins prefers to describe him as “a man of his time. Rock ‘n’ roll back then was extremely misogynistic. How do you judge a man who reflected his time? “

Even in that time, however, the attitudes expressed by James brought him into frequent conflict with others, including his record company and other stars whom he saw as threats. He resented Prince’s rise in the ’80s bitterly, believing he had stolen his number, and he initially hated MC Hammer’s song, U Can’t Touch This, which fed off the Super Freak riff. (His attitude changed dramatically when huge royalty checks started pouring in.) When James ‘own albums stopped selling well in the late’ 80s, he blamed the record company rather than his own creativity. decreasing, caused by drug use. An incident in which he threatened a Motown executive led the label to redirect its promotional dollars to Lionel Ritchie rather than James. His nadir came in the early 1990s when he was convicted of various crimes resulting from two incidents of kidnapping and torture of women, resulting in a three-year sentence in Folsom Prison. While he had some smooth comebacks, in 2004 James died of heart failure at the age of 56.

The sad legacy of addiction continues in James’ family. Rick Jr also became a drug addict. The reason he doesn’t appear in the film is that he’s currently serving a 17-year sentence on what Ty describes as “a variety of misdemeanor charges.”

As hard as it was for Ty to come to terms with and recounting, she doesn’t intend to sugarcoat the most unsettling parts of her father’s life. In fact, she’s planning two projects of her own based on the full arc of her life, including a biopic and a theatrical musical. She hopes all of these performances will encourage viewers to see James in a completely rounded way. “No one is perfect and I’m sure he will have to respond to God at the end of the day,” she said. “But my dad was a genius and if you can’t recognize his contribution to music and culture in general, then shame on you.”


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