The Pitch: Rick James was many things — Motown renegade, punk-funk pioneer, superfreak, drug addict, abuser of women, Dave Chappelle punchline. He was Rick James, bitch. But in Sacha Jenkins’ new documentary, all these facets and more get ample time to marinate.
From charting his hardscrabble childhood in the racist, segregated city of Buffalo, NY, to his early days as a draft dodger and Neil Young bandmate, to his ups and downs after his “Superfreak” success, Bitchin’ sees the man as the complicated figure he was: A musical trailblazer and a misogynistic, self-destructive monster all wrapped in one sequined, dreadlocked package. Which side wins out? How do you reconcile the two halves of one of pop music’s loudest, most exuberant voices?
Bustin’ Out: At first blush, Jenkins (a music journalist-turned-director of Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men) seems to be taking a straightforward music-doc approach to James’ life. Start with the reverent, cross-cut words of praise for the subject; move to their difficult childhood growing up among violence and poverty. Blend archival footage with talking-head interviews with their friends, family, and colleagues. Layer it all with thematically-appropriate Rick James tracks and a few curiously-shot reenactments. Rinse, repeat.
Within that genre consistency, Jenkins paints a complicated portrait of a man who both revolutionized pop music and carried some of its worst demons with him. As a child growing up in Buffalo in the ’60s, James was exposed early to some of the vices that would follow him for the rest of his too-short 56 years on Earth. He started selling drugs on the streets; he was molested at 13 by an older woman in his room; he received regular beatings from his “disciplinarian” mother (“I guess you could say I was an abused child,” he says nonchalantly in an archival interview).
From there, he fled to Canada to dodge the Vietnam draft and fell in with Neil Young and the Mynah Birds, cultivating a Mick Jagger-esque sexual swagger. After several abortive efforts at kickstarting his music career (including a stint in prison after he was caught as a draft-dodger), James suddenly found success with his 1981 album Street Songs, thrusting him into the world of prestige and fame and rock-star notoriety — one that would both prove his crowning achievement and his tragic undoing.
Mary Jane: It’s in the middle stretches that Bitchin‘ really picks up steam, hurdling headfirst into the whirlwind rock ‘n roll lifestyle James was notorious for. He was open about smoking marijuana (even in his songs, as Ice Cube’s endearing anecdote about discovering the true meaning of “Mary Jane” indicates), which quickly escalated into a four-figure nightly cocaine habit. He regularly attended orgies, and filmed band members getting it on with various women; former Stone City Band members talk about his exploits with alternating reverence and reservation.
It was also during this period that James’ own outspokenness proved one of his greatest assets: in one candid TV interview after another, James castigates Motown for trying to pigeon-hole him into doo-wop, or complains about MTV’s reticence to platform Black artists if they don’t fall into the strict ‘rock ‘n roll’ mission statement. Granted, so much of that was framed by his own ego — he was just as likely to chew out Motown executive Jay Lasker (and whip out his dick in the process to prove a point) as he was to make digs at MC Hammer for sampling “Superfreak” for “Can’t Touch This.”
His advocacy for Black artists was wrapped up in his own self-advocacy; social justice as a means of personal advancement.
Cold Blooded: That selfishness takes its most intriguing turns once Jenkins finally starts delving into the inescapable troubles of the man’s life — including reports of sexual assault, sex with underage girls (he met ex-wife Tanya Hijazi when she was 17), and even torture by crack pipe (a heavily-publicized court case that landed him in jail for five years). Jenkins shows us both sides of the equation, at least through the lens of the people who knew him.
Former bandmates alternate between disgust and excuses for his behavior; Hijazi gleefully defends James, characterizing them both as “damaged” people who needed each other. And in the middle of it all is estranged daughter Ty, who clearly loves her late father even as she reckons with some of his most troublesome attributes. Even as James gets a late-in-life revival as the butt of the infamous Chappelle’s Show sketch, Jenkins shows the conflicting feelings people had about James as a punchline.
The Verdict: In Bitchin’, Jenkins crafts both hagiography and exposé of Rick James, tracking the ways his virtues and vices followed him throughout his life and career. On the one hand, he was a revolutionary and a gifted performer, crafting some of the greatest earworms in funk music history and challenging the white-dominated norms of the music industry. On the other, Jenkins shows the ways his fame got to his head — how the power granted to him as a rock star allowed him to prey upon vulnerable young women (some of whom defend him on camera to this day) and cultivated drug addictions that would ultimately cost him his life.
Perhaps the smartest move Bitchin‘ makes is to just lay all of James’ cards out on the table and let the audience figure it out for themselves. Clearly, those around him already have built-in excuses for his transgressions: it was the culture at the time, I was never coerced, it wasn’t as bad as all that.
Where’s It Playing? Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James airs on Showtime starting September 2nd.