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Space is the Place: The Mutha Ship Connection

Rex  Butters By

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Everything is in its place but you, Planet Earth. —Sun Ra
In 1974 the original Brother From Another Planet, Sun Ra, participated in a legendary low budget indie sci-fi film based on the Ra myth. Shot in 16mm around Oakland’s Merritt College and San Jose’s Rosicrucian Museum, Space Is The Place stars Ra as a crazy wisdom-cracking alien come to transport black folks to an Edenic planet through the transformative quality of music. Along the way he battles Evil in a game of cards on an isolated table in the middle of the desert, invoking a collision of Bergman and Jodorowsky. Given the year and budget, ample elements of blaxploitation also collide with the beneficent alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Transitional Arkestra performance footage shows up here and there, the musicians filmed on a soundstage at the infamous Mitchell Brothers’ studio across the building from the simultaneous filming of Behind the Green Door.

The film opens with Ra’s odd ship flying through space, looking like a flying pair of gag sunglasses. June Tyson and the band chant, “It’s after the end of the world – don’t you know that yet?” The band, in full regalia, explores a primordial forest planet and Ra begins talking about “altered destiny.” Suddenly it’s Chicago, 1943, and a strangely-dressed stride pianist named “Sonny Ray” plays for a burlesque show. His nemesis, a mac daddy named the Overseer, orders the theater to can the pianist, but Ra clears the house when his barrelhouse piano takes a turn to Saturn – resulting in glass shattering, the piano smoking, and desperate chaos as people flee. Ra and the Overseer both transport to their desert card table and influence action on the earth dimension with peculiar tarot cards.

The Judgement card features Ra’s spaceship, which comes in for a landing on earth with heavy media coverage to hear his “plan for the salvation of the black race.” Ra and company are resplendently costumed as they step through the dry ice fog and disembark from the ship. Ra materializes before kids in a rec center with the intention of recruiting them to his space mission. He offers them the dire warning, “the year 2000 is just around the corner!” Later he sets up an Outer Space Employment agency and plays people with koans in an attempt to wake them up.

NASA guys bug his phone and generally harass him, until finally they kidnap him before his big concert. “How do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?” they demand fruitlessly. As a means of torture, they make him listen to “Dixie” played by a marching band on headphones. A couple of kids from the rec center see the snatch and follow the white van, freeing Sun Ra in time for his show.

“Everything is in its place but you, Planet Earth,” he says, then he outlines his Intergalactic Doctrine in a call and response with June Tyson. The Arkestra rocks in all its performance footage, Marshall Allen looking like a kid. After foiling an assassination plot with outside improvisation, Ra heals a junkie before heading back to the Paradise planet. “I’m the Myth talking to you,” he says as his ship takes off and the earth explodes.

For a lost sci-fi B film from the ‘70s, the picture and sound quality are pristine. Ra composed all his own dialogue, and there are too many gems to repeat. Bonus features include a recent interview with the producer and director, plus seven minutes of Sun Ra home movies. These silent movies are are shown with a music track by the Arkestra. The movie’s a must-see for fans of Sun Ra, who’s at least as good as Elvin Jones in Zachariah, and for fans of cult movie sci-fi and blaxploitation, there’s just no other film like it.


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