He’s Rick James, bitch, and there’s a great new documentary about him by Sacha Jenkins fittingly titled BITCHIN’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, which delves into the wild, complicated life of the innovative and influential musician who coined the term “punk-funk” to describe the eclectic ingredients that went into his unique sound. Jenkins meticulously reveals the deeper layers behind the caricature of the Chappelle’s Show piece that brought James back into the public consciousness shortly before his death in 2004. Jenkins last appeared at Tribeca in 2019 with the documentary TV series Wu Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, which covered the fabled hip-hop group’s origins on the rough streets of Staten Island; Rick James grew up in a similarly crime-ridden environment in New York, but many miles upstate, in the racially segregated Buffalo of the 1950s. The sexual and criminal exploits that consumed James later in life were rooted in his childhood, as a street kid introduced very early to numbers running and petty theft, as well as the drug abuse that would eventually bring about his demise. He also developed an extremely warped view of male-female relationships by witnessing his mother’s physical abuse at his father’s hands, and by being sexually assaulted by an older woman as a preteen.
However, James’ youth wasn’t all sex and crime — there was also music, of course. The strongest passages in BITCHIN’ detail the long, twisting road to the stardom he finally achieved in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a road that included a notable detour through Canada in the 1960s, where James fled after going AWOL from the Navy. There, he immersed himself in the Toronto folk/psychedelic rock scene, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, with whom he formed a band called the Mynah Birds, and which later went to the States for a brief, unsuccessful stint at Motown. After running afoul of a Motown exec who learned he was a military deserter and ratted him out to the authorities, James spent a year in prison. Upon his release, he moved to California, where he played in a series of rock and funk bands, without much success. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when James moved back to Buffalo, formed the Stone City Band with local musicians, and synthesized his myriad musical influences into a singular sound that he finally found the fame that had so long eluded him. James’ success culminated in his seminal 1981 album Street Songs, which included the massive, immortal hit “Super Freak,” which combined an insanely funky riff with the synth-based new wave sound currently in vogue.
As much as the film celebrates and closely analyzes James’ music, it also doesn’t shy away from examining the darker side of his achievements: the Dionysian rock star excess that found him consuming massive amounts of cocaine and other substances, as well as the physical and sexual abuse he inflicted on women. Ironically, James spent much of his peak commercial period writing and producing for women artists such as Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls, and in an archival interview in the film, James offers the deeply disturbing self-analysis that it was his abuse of women that gave him insights into writing songs for them. That’s all to say, BITCHIN’ excels in delivering a warts-and-all portrait of its subject, neither descending into abject hagiography nor outright damning its subject with easy moralizing. As such, it reclaims the memory of both the great musician and the troubled human at the artist’s core from being simply a source of cheap punchlines and glib catchphrases.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.