DOCUMENTARY "Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James"
WHEN|WHERE Premieres Friday at 9 p.m on Showtime
WHAT IT’S ABOUT All any pop artist needs is a hit — just one hit. The benefits last a lifetime: fame, fortune, a final song to play at every show. Just ask Don McLean, Hanson or Third Eye Blind.
For Rick James, that hit was "Super Freak," a 1981 funk track with a springy bass line, brazenly sexual lyrics and a hint of new-wave energy. James was already well-known to Black audiences, but the ubiquitous "Super Freak" — heard everywhere from the nightclub to the school playground — introduced him to white ones, too, and cemented his public image as a sexed-out funk-rocker in thigh-high boots and glittery braids.
A hit can also define you forever. After "Super Freak," James steadily faded from public view until the 1990s, when he made headlines for several sex-and-drugs scandals. James died in 2004, at the age of 54.
"Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James," a documentary from the hip-hop journalist-turned-filmmaker Sacha Jenkins, acknowledges that James’ "Super Freak" persona was no invention: His wild stage shows paled in comparison to what he did behind closed doors. But the film also proves that James contributed more to music than just one song.
MY SAY James is an artist ripe for remembering and revisiting, even if only for this reason: He was Prince before Prince. That summing-up would probably infuriate both artists, who once toured together and reportedly sabotaged each other’s shows, but it’s hard to deny. Nearly everything that made Prince a pop icon — sex-obsessed lyrics, gender-blended outfits, a mixed-race-and-gender band playing hard funk with a new-wave sensibility — were all pioneered by James.
Jenkins’ documentary touches on the Prince connection but focuses more on James’ other accomplishments. After some walkabout years — AWOL from the Navy, a stint in Canada singing with Neil Young’s early band the Mynah Birds — the Buffalo-born James signed with Motown. With early singles like "You and I" and "Mary Jane," James essentially transformed George Clinton’s wild-and-wooly brand of funk into something harder-edged and blatantly erotic.
James may have looked like a novelty act but he had serious ideas. He was an early voice of protest against MTV’s relentlessly pro-white playlist; the channel never once played the "Super Freak" video. What’s more, that song’s parent album, "Street Songs," was something of a concept album about Black life in America. The track "Mr. Policeman" made a big impression on Ice Cube, interviewed here.
Post-"Super Freak," James’ life and career were a mixed bag. At Motown, he became a hit-making producer behind Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls and even Eddie Murphy (remember "My Girl Wants to Party All the Time?"). At the same time, James spiraled into cocaine addiction and eventually served several years in prison after women accused him of assault, torture and kidnapping. It’s hard not to think of R. Kelly, currently on trial for similar abuses, during these scenes.
As rock docs go, this one feels just barely up to snuff. The audio can be patchy; the animated re-enactments look amateurish; subjects are introduced with vague titles like "Author." Jenkins’ best "get" is Kerry Gordy, son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who tells a hilarious yet harrowing story about James’ insane behavior in the office of label president Jay Lasker. According to Gordy, Lasker’s reaction was to immediately sign Lionel Richie.
The title of "Bitchin’" is clearly inspired by a Dave Chappelle skit that immortalized the singer for a whole new generation, and it’s nice to know that James was eventually able to laugh at himself. Even in this unpolished documentary, the singer’s forceful personality and musical talent manage to show through.
BOTTOM LINE A small-scale documentary on a larger-than-life performer.