Filmmaker Robert Mugge gives Night Flight an exclusive look at his documentary “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise”

By on April 8, 2016

Filmmaker Robert Mugge’s Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise shows jazz great Sun Ra and his band performing in Philadelphia, at Danny’s Hollywood Palace, on the rooftop of the Philadelphia International Center, and in the Famous Ballroom, now part of the expanded Charles Theatre, in Baltimore. Mugge also mixed in poetry readings, a band rehearsal, interviews, and extensive improvisations. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!

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Robert Mugge in 1978. All photos are courtesy of Robert Mugge.

Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his film.

Robert Mugge:

Coming out of film school, I used to say that an independent filmmaker could make one film in his/her career without funding — that is, a production totally dependent on friends loaning equipment and providing free labor. I said you could do this only once, because the next time around, all your increasingly professional friends would want to be paid for their contributions.

Of course, now that I’ve taught film production to a newer generation of students, I’ve seen how groups of them regularly come together for ambitious projects and simply trade off taking the lead positions, aided by the fact that HD video is so much cheaper and easier to shoot and edit than the 16mm film we utilized in decades past.

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At any rate, the film I made essentially without funding, but with the assistance of a great many friends, was Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, a film primarily shot and edited in 1978 and only completed in 1980 after a generous contribution of $15,000 from a single individual. The only other money available during that two-year period was several thousand dollars I had made from selling my previous documentary on Philadelphia Mayor Frank L. Rizzo to Swedish television, and all of it went to purchase film stock which, in those days, was one of any production’s biggest expenses.

Cliché or not, this was a labor of love, but it also relied on the sort of salesmanship Tom Sawyer used to convince passing friends to whitewash a fence in his place.

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As it happens, my love for Sun Ra began at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in 1972. On the bill were extraordinary artists — Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bonnie Raitt with Sippie Wallace, and many more — but the performance that changed my life was that by Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

As a student filmmaker nearing graduation, I decided then and there I should make a film about this man, and with confidence typical of the average 22-year-old, I was certain it would happen.

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A year later, I started grad school at Temple University in Philadelphia and found, to my delight, that Sun Ra and several key members of his Arkestra lived in a house owned by saxophone great Marshall Allen in the Germantown area of the city, and that they performed often throughout the region.

Naturally, I went on to attend a many of their local shows as I could, and I made some initial efforts to secure funding for the film I was already planning. But it was not until 1978, after I’d dropped out of grad school and made well-received films on composer George Crumb and the aforementioned Mayor Frank Rizzo, that I finally decided production of the Sun Ra film could wait no longer, whether money was available or not.

At that time, a properly funded feature-length doc tended to cost at least a hundred grand, and some cost many times that. But I was determined to make a Sun Ra film under any circumstances, and I therefore sent out a clarion call to all the bud- ding young filmmakers I knew to please come help me in any way they could.

Yes, it was an early Seventies version of the films I had grown up with in which, against all odds, young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland called upon friends to stage a late Thirties or early Forties musical.

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The next step was to speak to Sun Ra about the idea, which I did during one of my periodic trips to his home to purchase his self-released LPs, often in album covers individually designed by Arkestra members. Since I did not have any money to offer, the “man from Saturn” was noncommittal. But he did say he was about to perform a concert at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, and if I wanted to show up with a crew, he might allow me to film it.

Relying solely on Sun Ra’s mood was a bit of a risk, of course. But my friends and I decided to take that risk, and the results make up a significant part of the finished sixty-minute film.

Shooting that day was a challenge, because we did not have as many people or as much equipment as we should have. But generally speaking, it went well.

Then, at the end of the evening, as we were breaking down what equipment we did have, members of the Arkestra suddenly surrounded me in the middle of the hall and instructed me to wait for Sun Ra. A few minutes later, Sun Ra himself entered the circle and asked for my “tapes.”

I soon realized he meant our audio tapes, and I protested that the 16mm film we had just shot would be worthless without the accompanying audio. His response was, “After four hundred years of slavery, it’s my turn to be in charge.”

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In fact, though, Sun Ra simply wanted to make sure we had done a professional job of capturing his performances, and this did not seem an unreasonable demand. So, my sound man and I agreed that, after driving back to Philadelphia, we would spend the rest of the night listening to our tapes with him at his home. Ultimately, and to our great relief, Sun Ra did decide that he was happy with our recordings, but he did so only after the sun had come up.

I should mention, in passing, that every so often that night, Sun Ra’s chin would slip down upon his chest, and he would sleep for perhaps fifteen minutes. This is notable only because he had long claimed that he did not need sleep.

Certainly, Sun Ra was renowned for performing, composing, rehearsing, and writing at all hours. But this episode showed that, like others known for functioning on very little sleep, he took occasional cat naps in order to make it through any given twenty-four hour period.

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From that point on, Sun Ra committed to working with us, and he and I together decided when and where we would shoot additional scenes. Over the coming months, we filmed assorted interviews at the Germantown house and elsewhere, filmed intimate performances and rehearsals in the house as well, filmed Sun Ra improvising soliloquies among Egyptian statuary at the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Museum, filmed Sun Ra reciting poetry beneath angel statues, filmed him and members of his Arkestra performing a requiem for a former Arkestra member who had died of a heroin overdose, and filmed him talking politics in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The D.C. trip actually happened because Sun Ra had heard someone there was claiming to be a representative of the Creator of the Universe, and Sun Ra wanted us to track this guy down and film a kind of spiritual cutting contest between the two of them. Sadly, our efforts to find this unknown spiritual leader proved fruitless, but we filmed Sun Ra in front of the White House in order that the trip would not be a total waste.

Eventually, I edited together everything we had shot to date and invited Sun Ra and a few of his musicians over to see the results. Now, at the time, I was living in a South Philly apartment near the Italian Market, and that area was divided between Italian-American neighborhoods and African-American ones. At night, it was considered unwise for a member of one group to venture into the other group’s territory.

So, when Sun Ra and his entourage arrived on my street sometime after dark and dressed in a modest version of their usual regalia, it should have come as no surprise to me that my landlord’s father would come running out of his row house brandishing a shotgun, and that he would only return to his house after recognizing that his neighborhood was not under attack.

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That get-together with Sun Ra and the others was enormous fun, beginning with my showing them my rough-cut of the film in my second-floor editing room, and all of them squealing with delight when Sun Ra would be shown making one of his more solemn pronouncements.

Certainly, he and his musicians took his philosophy quite seriously, but they still were amused that his words sometimes included a level of cosmic jive.

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Knowing I was cutting the film on a flatbed editing table, Sun Ra also brought along a 16mm copy of the film Space Is The Place in which he had starred several years before, but which, ever since, he had prevented from being released. Because he took his mission so seriously, Sun Ra hated the Blaxploitation elements the producers had added to their storyline. So, at his request, I went through and cut out all the sections he designated.

He said he planned to tell the producers this newly trimmed version would be acceptable for release, and I know that home video distributor Rhapsody Films, Inc. was later allowed to put out an abridged version. But I never checked to see how much of the original film was included in that release or in more recent ones.

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As the night wore on, we returned to my first floor living room where Sun Ra looked through my record collection and pulled out classic Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson albums. Then, as we listened to the songs he chose, he began dissecting the arrangements and the performances in great detail, and I suddenly had a hint of what it must have been like to live and work with Sun Ra full-time.

The musicians and I followed their “master’s” every word, mesmerized by his insights into these earlier jazz masters, each of whose work had been a big influence on his own.

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Predictably, of course, my relationship with Sun Ra had its ups and downs, and most of the “downs” resulted from my lack of funding. Still, as more months rolled by, I continued seeking money wherever I could.

And with that in mind, one day, I went by the house in Germantown in the hope of getting Sun Ra to sign an agreement acknowledging he was aware of the project and endorsed my efforts to secure completion funds. But that day, having not yet been paid anything at all, Sun Ra was in no mood to sign my document.

Instead, he went into preaching mode, as he tended to do when aggravated, and began telling me how I would “end up in the graveyard,” whereas he was “immortal.”

So, how could he possibly sign a contract with me? This literally went on for two hours until, increasingly aggravated myself, I suddenly replied, “Sun Ra, you’ll end up in the graveyard just like everybody else!”

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No sooner were those words out of my mouth than I regretted them, because he now appeared crushed. “How can I work with you,” he murmered, “if you don’t believe what I tell you?”

Realizing the depth of my mistake, I spent the next half hour apologizing for my anger and assuring Sun Ra that I did, indeed, believe he was immortal. To my great relief, by the time I left there, all was good between us again. But he never did sign that initial agreement.

As I mentioned before, in early 1980, a wealthy friend of a friend did come up with a check for $15,000 which, in those days, was enough money to complete such a labor of love.

More specifically, it allowed us to film an additional concert on the roof of the International House of Philadelphia (on a summer day so hot the flip-flops worn by some of the Arkestra members literally melted on the gravel beneath our feet). The rest of those completion funds allowed me to pay for all aspects of post-production, including the making of our first 16mm release prints.

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Sun Ra was as smart, as talented, and as charming as anyone I have ever met, and I have many wonderful memories from working with him on this project. The day I finally showed up at his Germantown house with a check, he lit up and announced, “Everything’s right in the universe! Mugge’s got money!”

But once I returned home, Sun Ra phoned and asked me to drive right back again, because the nearest branch of my bank had refused to cash a check made out in his name. Together, we returned to the bank, and I assured the manager not only that I had written this check, but that the man beside me, dressed as if starring in a low-budget science fiction film, was, indeed, the intended recipient.

After we left the bank, Sun Ra asked if I could take him and accompanying Arkestra members to a nearby grocery store. I was happy to comply, and once we got inside, I was taken aback by the irony of walking with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century – these Musical Knights of the Cosmos – as they pulled cans of baked beans and bags of potato chips off of the shelves.

But irony aside, I treasure every minute I spent in the great man’s presence.

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I believe the last time I saw Sun Ra and his Arkestra in person was when we premiered the film in New York City. All these years later, I can no longer remember all the details, but I believe it was at the Carnegie Hall Cinema.

I do remember that this was the first time Sun Ra and his musicians had seen the film, and I’ll never forget the pride with which they entered the theater, and the joy they clearly felt while watching themselves onscreen.

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Although Sun Ra left us in 1993 (for “parts unknown,” as he would have said), it pleases me to know that this record of his music, his poetry, his artwork, his costumes, his mythology, and his mischievous smile will continue on, just as will his hundreds of recordings.

In fact, I am especially happy that MVD Visual is preparing to release my newly remastered version of the film on Blu-ray, complete with bonus audio.

May Sun Ra and his joyful noise “travel the spaceways” forever.

© 2016 Robert E. Mugge

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About Robert Mugge

Robert Mugge has been making feature-length documentaries and music films for the past four decades. According to France’s Libération, “Mugge is nothing less than the best music filmmaker on the planet." Among the better-known of his 34 films to date are DEEP BLUES, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with Sonny Rollins, ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope, HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: THE AFTERLIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON, THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO, BLUES DIVAS with Morgan Freeman, and NEW ORLEANS MUSIC IN EXILE. His latest productions are ZYDECO CROSSROADS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES and STEVE BELL STORYTELLER: A NEWSMAN LIVING HISTORY. Since 2005, his production partner has been Diana Zelman, to whom he is now married. For five years, he was an Endowed Chair Professor at Ball State University, and for two years he was Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Many of his films, both old and new, are currently being released on Blu-ray or DVD by MVD Visual. Much more about Mugge's career is available at www.robertmugge.com.