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Televising The Revolution: Robert Mugge discusses the making of “Black Wax” with Gil Scott-Heron
Filmmaker Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his 1982 film Black Wax, which centers on the late African American poet-singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron — the man Melody Maker called “the most dangerous musician alive” and many dubbed the forefather of rap music — and his ten-piece Midnight Band. Watch it now as part of our collection of Robert Mugge music documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.
Yes, Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous recording was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” And yet, thanks to my being in the right place at the right time, I was able to document Gil’s revolutionary music, poetry, and political perspectives and then get them viewed around the world. Here’s the way it happened.
Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous song.
Completing my 1980 film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise was such a struggle, I wound up totally broke. I therefore had no choice but to leave Philadelphia and move in with my parents in the suburbs of D.C. While there, I arranged numerous early screenings of the film and made early efforts to raise funding for a portrait of jazz composer, keyboard player, and bandleader Carla Bley.
Robert Mugge’s film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise
During that brief period, the smartest thing I did was submit the film to the London Film Festival, where festival director Ken Wlaschin and his jazz film programmer David Meeker both loved it.
Not only was it accepted for the festival, but David recommended it to Angus Trowbridge and John Jeremy of TCB Releasing, a distributor of music films based in Somerset, England.
In no time at all, TCB was providing worldwide distribution for my Sun Ra film, my George Crumb film, and many of my films yet to come.
Poster for the 1981 London Film Festival.
In November of 1981, I was flown over for the festival, but not before Angus informed me he had sold UK broadcast rights for the Sun Ra film to Andy Park, the Commissioning Editor for Music at Channel Four Television which, a year later, was to become Britain’s fourth national TV channel.
Mr. Park, I soon learned, was a jazz musician and radio executive from Glasgow, Scotland who had come to Channel Four intent on creating the most radical and diverse music programming ever. I took for granted I had to meet this man!
The original logo for Britain’s Channel Four Television.
As soon as I reached London, I dug up the phone number for Channel Four, spoke with Andy’s secretary, and was given a time when I could meet with him.
Doing so meant missing the second half of the latest Tom Stoppard play, for which my companion and I already had tickets. But as much as I loved Stoppard’s work in those years, I figured that was a small price to pay for such a promising introduction.
Andy Park in London in the early 1980s.
Andy greeted me at the door of his cramped, temporary quarters and offered me a chair. Channel Four was then awaiting completion of its shiny new offices, and this small, cluttered space could barely contain Andy’s high energy, quick wit, and oversized Glaswegian personality.
Getting right to the point, he told me how much he loved my Sun Ra film and then asked what new projects I had in the works. I mentioned the Carla Bley film, but his response was lukewarm.
Suddenly, Andy took out an LP, placed it on a small, portable turntable, and set the needle to what I instantly knew was “B Movie” from Gil Scott-Heron’s recent Reflections album. He clearly was delighted by Gil’s clever mockery of Ronald Reagan, America’s president of just the past ten months, and waited expectantly for my response.
“Oh, that’s Gil Scott-Heron,” I declared, glad to be passing Andy’s test. “He lives in the D.C. area, maybe an hour from me.”
What Andy said next would prove a turning point in my career: “If someone could put together a film about him,” he said, “I would pay for the whole thing.”
Gil Scott-Heron’s 1981 Reflections album.
For someone whose days were spent endlessly searching for grants or struggling to charm investors, these words were a revelation. I immediately promised that, as soon as I returned home, I would attempt to contact Gil and see if he’d be open to a portrait.
Then, I spent the next couple of months doing separate but related dances: on the one hand, I strove to make it through numerous Gil Scott-Heron gatekeepers, finally hitting it off with his brother Denis who was his manager at the time; and on the other, I tried to convince Andy I was up to this challenge, first by sending him my George Crumb film, which he didn’t much like, and second, by sending him my Frank Rizzo portrait, which was funny and audacious enough to win his respect.
Although I didn’t grasp it at the time, I believe Andy saw my comic assault on Mayor Rizzo as akin to Gil’s acid ribbing of Reagan, and that my own take on Gil would therefore be compatible with his own.
Robert Mugge’s 1978 film Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo
Denis informed me that Gil was set to perform an April 1st “birthday concert” at Washington, D.C.’s Wax Museum Nightclub, actually more a theater that had been converted from the city’s longtime wax museum. And from the club’s management, I learned they still had the original wax figures wrapped in plastic and gathering dust in a massive back room.
So, I pitched Andy on the notion that, not only could we film Gil’s shows in the performance part of the club; but in the back room, we could build a set and film him with assorted wax figures.
Gil Scott-Heron with a wax figure of poet Langston Hughes.
Andy was intrigued, though not yet sure he could manage funding on such short notice. In the end, though, he did, which meant that, for the first time, I would be able to film a concert with four cameras and 24-track recording equipment.
In addition, my project salary allowed me to return to Philadelphia where Larry McConkey, the director of photography for my past three films, was becoming increasingly familiar with the new Steadicam device, invented by his friend and mentor Garrett Brown.
Together, we decided to make our next film perhaps the first ever to utilize Steadicam from beginning to end.
A Steadicam shot of Gil Scott-Heron with Robert Gordon on bass and Kenny Powell on drums.
In her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, Erica Jong put forth the notion of a “zipless fuck,” implying a sexual encounter so passionate that clothes simply fall away unnoticed.
Similarly, I saw Larry’s gift for flowing, lyrical cinematography as a way to present Gil’s art and ideas, which some at the time found challenging, in a manner that was fluid, entrancing, and therefore unthreatening. I also wanted to use the sort of visual metaphors common in music videos of the time. But I wanted to avoid the frantic pace of such clips, hoping to hold viewer attention throughout a feature-length presentation, and throughout Gil’s extended political reflections.
Since at least the 1960s, leftist political films had mostly been ragged and raw, often shot in black and white, with protagonists preaching loudly to the converted. But in Gil’s case, we wanted the revolution to be “televised” – that is, his ideas accessible to a mass audience – and the surest way of making that happen was to embed his deep wit and stark observations in an entertaining shell of clever words, colorful pictures, intoxicating jazz funk, and Gil’s warm and inviting personality.
It would be the opposite of Brechtian or Godardian “distancing,” in that the film would not push viewers away in order to make them focus on Gil’s message, but suck them in, making them “one” with his presentation.
At least, that was my thinking, and both Gil and Andy liked the sound of it.
Gil Scott-Heron approaching the Washington Monument.
The afternoon of Thursday, April 1st, we took over the club, lighting and miking the stage, establishing camera positions, setting up a command center where I could watch both the stage and a bank of video monitors, checking our headsets, and hanging a giant digital clock which Larry had ordered for me. Each cameraman would shoot the clock as he started or finished a film magazine so that, when I began editing, I could more easily sync each roll of film with the raw concert audio.
In addition, audio director Bill Barth would take his place in the audio truck, recording a rough, two-channel music mix which was fed to him by the engineers, and which I could use in editing.
However, the primary job of the engineers was to record twenty-four separate tracks of audio which could later be mixed for the film’s soundtrack, the same as if we were making a record.
Gil Scott-Heron doing a black history monologue before his music set. (photo by Robert Caldwell)
That night, as planned, we filmed both shows. Each began with an extended monologue in which Gil reflected on black history, black poetry, and black politics, often using incidents from his own life to make larger points.
Then, after a brief break, the Midnight Band joined him onstage for a full concert of his better-known songs, highlights of his latest album, and thoughtful introductions.
Both sets included “Gun,” ”Winter in America,” “Alien,” “Johannesburg,” “Angel Dust,” ”Storm Music,” “Waiting for the Axe to Fall” and, of course, “B-Movie,” all of which are as meaningful today as they were when we filmed them.
[Note: The other song performed that night – “Is That Jazz?” – did not make it into the finished film. But I cut it together anyway and, ever since, have used it as a bonus feature for home video releases.]
Gil Scott-Heron with guitarist Ed Brady.
At the end of the night, Gil and I agreed that, within a few days, my crew would build a set in the back room of the nightclub. Then, the day after, we would film Gil interacting with historical wax figures (that is, multiple U.S. presidents, heroes and heroines of the American Revolution, astronauts, Hollywood actors, legendary men and women of black history, and more) just as we had previously filmed Sun Ra engaging with Egyptian statues.
In each of these situations, we knew our subject was a brilliant artist with much to say, and we also knew Larry could improvise right along with them, creating a kind of visual equivalent for their jazz-like articulation.
Gil Scott-Heron with wax figures of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne.
Gil, of course, did not disappoint, conversing with symbols of our American past; peppering them with snatches of poetry and song lyrics, and playing off of quotes from others.
Perhaps my favorite of the resulting scenes involved Gil reciting “Whitey on the Moon” as Larry framed him, first against an imposing likeness of Uncle Sam, and then beneath a spacesuit-wearing Neil Armstrong we had hung from the storeroom ceiling.
Gil Scott-Heron, in front of the wax figure of Uncle Sam, introducing his poem “Whitey on the Moon.”
Afterwards, Gil produced an audiocassette on which he said he’d recorded a few instrumental tracks and a vocal guide track for a new song titled “Washington, D.C.” He suggested I use it on the film’s soundtrack, accompanying his words with images of official Washington.
I responded that I had a better idea and asked if he owned a boom box. He said he did, so I asked him to bring it for our next day of shooting.
Gil Scott-Heron in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.
I don’t remember if we filmed again one, two, or three days later But when we did meet, we did so at the D.C. Mall, directly between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. There, Gil riffed on the idea of official Washington, and on the effort to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.
We then drove to a black neighborhood and filmed him reciting his poems “Paint It Black” and “Billy Green Is Dead” as he walked.
At the same location, we filmed a scene meant to cut with another we had shot among the wax figures, making him appear to fall through the street, “Alice in Wonderland” style, into our American waxworks below.
Gil Scott-Heron reciting poetry on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Another highlight of the day was filming Gil and his two-year-old daughter Gia in front of the White House. Yes, I felt a little funny about it, since we had previously filmed Sun Ra in the same spot, exclaiming how, in fairness, there should be a Black House across the street. But if anything would humanize Gil Scott-Heron for audiences everywhere, it would be seeing him walk his adorable little girl past all the true crazies and extremists camped along the White House fence.
Gil Scott-Heron walking with his 2-year-old daughter Gia in front of the White House.
At some point, of course, we also had Gil bring out his boom box and place it on his shoulder. Next, sound man Bill Barth attached a wireless mic to Gil’s shirt; Gil played the tape of his song “Washington, D.C.”; Bill recorded a live mix of Gil singing along with the tape; and Larry shot the resulting boom box duet against recognizable D.C. backdrops – the Tidal Basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial, the grounds of the Washington Monument, the Howard University campus, and so forth.
We did this knowing I would make these performances a recurring riff throughout the film.
Gil Scott-Heron walking across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial.
I don’t remember when I came up with the title Black Wax. But as soon as I did, I knew it was perfect. Not only did it evoke the black history lessons Gil was imparting, both in concert and with the wax figures, but it also suggested the making of records, as in the title of 1978 rock & roll nostalgia film American Hot Wax.
In addition, the image of an African American male walking with a boom box on his shoulder – the bigger and more powerful ones dubbed “ghetto blasters” – had become emblematic of vibrant urban life.
Arguably, it also personified an urban black obsession with music which, in the years to come, would tend towards rap and hip-hop. For Gil to walk around Washington, D.C. with a boom box on his shoulder showed him to be part of this place we both knew as a black city, even as people around the world viewed it as the hub of American global power.
In retrospect, the boom box also personifies the influence of Gil’s literate talk-singing on the burgeoning world of rap music.
Gil Scott-Heron with boom box.
I have many fond (and not so fond) memories of screening this film. There was the time programmer Eddie Cockrell sold out multiple showings at the AFI Theatre at the Kennedy Center; the time I was led from a festival screening in Montreal to another screening room where a young Spike Lee was holding court with his graduate thesis film, already a star in the making; and the time programmer Richard Peña and I walked onstage after a screening at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, at which point an African American woman rose from the crowd to say, “I knew a white boy directed this film!” only to be hissed into silence by the black folks around her.
Gil Scott-Heron at the 1983 Sunsplash Festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
There was also the time in early 1984 when I was scheduled to show both Black Wax and my 1983 film Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in Holland, and Gil accepted an invitation to join us.
I should note that Gil had made a strong appearance in the second film as well, performing a 14- minute version of his song “The Bottle” at the Sunsplash Festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
So, the festival was excited to have him for both presentations. But when the time came for him to board his scheduled flight to Holland, he failed to show, perhaps revealing the downward trajectory of his personal life at that time.
In one last bit of irony, what I’ll always remember about the festival was hanging out with Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, and being listed with them in the local newspaper as one of the “visiting black filmmakers.”
In the days that followed, I refused to have my picture taken, so as not to disabuse anyone of that perfect moment of solidarity.
Gil Scott-Heron with tenor saxophone player Ron Holloway.
With regard to “televising the revolution,” once Channel Four finally went on the air in November of 1982, Black Wax was among the first films to be “transmitted,” as they say over there.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., although the film was soon available on VHS tape, laserdisc, and then DVD, it would not be broadcast until 1988. That’s when it kicked off my six-part PBS series titled “Summer Night Music.”
I’m not aware of all the places the film has shown since (especially since so many are bootleg). But over the past thirty-four years, it has been widely seen, most recently via the Blu-ray and DVD from MVD Visual.
The original Channel Four poster for Black Wax
Still, it’s important to note that, were it not for Andy Park and Channel Four Television, this film would never have been made. Indeed, four of the six films included in my “Summer Night Music” series had been funded by Channel Four, with three of them commissioned by Andy himself.
It was Andy who first showed me that people around the world often care more about American culture than we do ourselves, and that artists seen as frightening here at home are warmly embraced overseas.
A Gil Scott-Heron portrait shot just before his concert. (photo by Robert Caldwell)
Prophets do, in time, receive honor in their own lands, but it doesn’t always come in the form that it should. Had Gil received the honor he deserved while here, perhaps his demons wouldn’t have gotten the better of him; perhaps he’d still be entertaining us, provoking us, and casting a light on every form of human injustice.
Had we listened, decades ago, when he sang of racism, drug and alcohol addiction, the epidemic of guns in our cities, nuclear proliferation, and the agony of illegal immigration, perhaps these wouldn’t be the problems they still are today.
So, let us please not turn turn this vibrant, gifted, and compassionate man into a wax figure. Instead, let’s keep him present in our hearts, and let’s address the issues to which he devoted his life and his art.
© 2016 Robert Mugge