Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra: Space Is the Place [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - Germany - Rapid Eye Movies
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (13th September 2020).
The Film

"Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Arkestra: Space Is the Place" (1974)

Jazz musician Sun Ra (played by Sun Ra) and his band The Arkestra have been away from Earth for a few years. Returning to Earth on their spacecraft, Sun Ra gives an important message for humans: that there is a chance for peace and salvation, by joining him on an intergalactic journey to a planet in which he has found to be habitable. Using his communication methods as a musician along with his band, it is their mission to spread the message though music and spirituality. While there are people that become eager to follow, there are skeptics from media and also the folks at NASA. Will the band be able to save mankind, or are there other heavier stakes at play in the grand scheme?

Born on May 22nd, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama with the name Herman Poole Blount, jazz pianist and keyboardist Sun Ra claimed that he was from the planet Saturn, and his mission was to promote peace through music around the world. Musically, his works have been far from the mainstream in style and substance, playing against traditional jazz and creating his own unique take. While the band has dabbled in swing, free form jazz, Latin and African rhythms, and even early electronic music, The Arkestra's ever evolving lineup of musicians was also a mirror of its ever evolving style over the years. While their music never experienced mainstream success, they recorded over a hundred full length albums through the decades and consistently toured until Sun Ra's death on May 30th, 1993 at the age of 79. Innovative and truly experimental, their sound influenced not only jazz musicians, but to non-jazz acts like Sonic Youth, The MC5, Squarepusher, The Flaming Lips among many others.

San Francisco based public television station KQED producer Jim Newman was looking to make a documentary on Sun Ra. Fellow KQED producer John Coney signed on to direct the project, with camera operator Seth Hill as cinematographer. Consisting of live performances of the band along with some incidental moments, the project expanded further by having everything connected with a narrative structure. A science fiction angle was added with the arrival of Sun Ra in his spacecraft, elements of the blaxploitation genre was also included with some sex, violence, and language, as well as a metaphysical and religious messages thrown in as well. There are nods to science fiction classics like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with the theme of a peaceful alien warning humans of their eventual future, "The Seventh Seal" with the idea of the main character literally playing a game with a higher power to decide the fates of everyone, and "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" with the tone in many of the scenes.

Sun Ra himself made his own dialogue as cryptic as they would come from his own mind, but for many portions not involving Ra such as scenes between Raymond Johnson as The Overseer and Christopher Brooks as announcer Jimmy Fey at the hospital and at the brothel were not Ra's doing but by additional writer Joshua Smith hired to construct a narrative to string everything together. Some of the sequences are fairly cliched. The white NASA officers on the trail of Sun Ra (played by Walter Burns and Morgan Upton) are the stereotypical "whitey" officers in their racist and violent methods. The scenes with nudity are not particularly sexy and look like they were taken from a bad softcore 70s movie, which ironically, the production shared a stage with the pornographic film "Behind the Green Door" on certain days, though there was no overlap with cast or crew. But "Space Is the Place" featured quite a lot of progressive elements. The music of course was the most progressive of all, with Sun Ra & His Arkestra's performance scenes being incredible highlights from their spoken word sections, the synthesizers meeting the old school elements of jazz instruments. The ideas of Afrofuturism was not often seen or heard in cinema, and the links between ancient African culture with ideas outside the boundaries of Earth and its given reality were presented. There are parallels with Sun Ra being a Jesus-like figure returning and bringing the idea salvation to the ones that are deserving. Is it right to blindly follow one entity? Is racial injustice solvable by moving elsewhere? Is Sun Ra really from Saturn as he claims? Quite a lot of ideas are thrown together in the story, and while not all work together equally, the ambition of the low budget work is very creative and very unusual even for modern eyes. Many questions can be thrown around, but the film shouldn't be taken so seriously in the end. Some ideas can bring about discussion, but "Space Is the Place" is a celebration of Sun Ra - meaning freedom, beauty, and an experience that goes further than just listening to the sounds of his music. However each listener and viewer will take the film will differ. Some may see it as a film about race relations - black kids being shot, white authority, etc. Some may see it as the story of Jesus' resurrection retold. And that's the beauty of the avant garde. There is no one right answer to all.

Filmed in 1972 and completed in 1974 with a runtime of 82 minutes, screening at college campuses and other smaller venues, "Space Is the Place" never received a full standard theatrical release. In addition, Sun Ra was never completely satisfied with the film. He later released his own edit of the film, which deleted some sequences he disliked, such as the brothel scene and others and the new shorter 65 minute cut. The shorter edit was released on VHS and for a long time was the only version commercially seen. In 2003, Plexifilm restored the film to its original 82 minute length dubbed the director's cut, which screened in some venues theatrically before its release on DVD. A 40th anniversary edition was released in 2015 (making it the 41st anniversary) by Harte Recordings, which included both cuts of the film on DVD alongside a 125 page book and two CDs for the soundtrack with exclusive songs. In 2017, Rapid Eye Movies in Germany restored the director's cut of the film using a rare lone 35mm print, screened it at special screenings, and finally giving the film its HD debut on Blu-ray in 2019.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray and region 0 PAL DVD release

Video

Rapid Eye Movies presents the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. Rapid Eye states there is only one known original 35mm print of the original version of the film, and that element was used for the transfer. While previous DVD editions had 1.78:1 transfers which cropped the top and bottom of the full 1.37:1 frame, this transfer shows the entire frame without any cropping of the image. The print has seen its better days. There are scratches, speckles, dust, debris, and other damage that can be seen throughout the film. Though the film did have some restoration work done for this release, it was mostly foe the color correction rather than cleanup, so the damage marks are actually more visible here than on previous DVD editions. As for colors, the production is fulled with bold colors, from the greens of the other planet, the bright yellow spaceship, and the intricate costumes worn by the Arkestra. Rapid Eye has digitally corrected the colors as much as possible, but there was only so much that could be done to fix the issues from the aged print. Blacks and dark tones can look crushed and whites blown out. Some of the colors can look very contrasty and unnatural. Stability is mostly fine but there are a few shaky moments that can be seen, though nothing too distracting. The grindhouse print look to this restored version is disappointing that it is not a full restoration, though it is also great to see the film look like an actual film, rather than a waxy and digital appearance.

The runtimes are 81:32 on the Blu-ray and 78:16 on the DVD accounting for 4% PAL speedup, both being the uncut director's cut.

In comparison, first are screenshots of the Rapid Eye Movies restored 1.37:1 version followed by the Plexifilm 1.78:1 version. In comparison the Rapid Eye restoration has bolder colors with more detail visible. Some of the damage marks are identical, most likely being part of the original negative. There is less damage on the Plexifilm transfer with some digital cleanup, while on the Rapid Eye transfer there are more pronounced and visible marks. The framing is quite tight and sometimes off on the 1.78:1 version, with an example of the shoe stealing moment being framed too high, as well as the shot of the girls on the sofa in the brothel, with the lower portion being completely cut off. The full frame version has better framing of the image throughout.







































Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono (Blu-ray)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (DVD)

The original mono is presented uncompressed on the Blu-ray and in Dolby Digital on the DVD. Like the film, the audio has not gone through a major restoration so quite a lot of defects remain. Crackle, pops, hiss, buzzing are heard throughout, with scenes just before a reel change being the worst. Many scenes have post synchronized ADR and the lips do not match completely, and this is due to the original source rather than faults of the transfer. As for the positive side, dialogue is fairly clear for the most part, and there are no issues of serious dropout. Compared to the older Plexifilm DVD which also restored the sound and had only a few instances of hiss or pops, the Rapid Eye release sounds like a grindhouse print. The music portions actually sound quite good, but due to fidelity issues and the source material, there are limitations to be expected.

There are optional German subtitles in a white font for the feature.

Extras

This is a dual format set with the film and extras presented on the Blu-ray and then repeated on a PAL DVD.


DISC ONE (Blu-ray)

The Arkestra @ Babylon Cinema, Berlin (10:12)
At the premiere screening of the restored version in Berlin on June 26th, 2017, members of The Sun Ra Arkestra alongside King Khan perform a live session in front of the screen. The sound is actually fairly good, but as it comes from one camera following the band from outside the theater all the way in, it can be a little shaky and blurry at points.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Q&A with The Arkestra & Producer Jim Newman (32:45)
This post screening Q&A at the Berlin screening has the film's producer, King Khan, and members of The Arkestra talking about the production. From the themes they wanted to bring, how Sun Ra never felt the film was finished and constantly wanted to tinker with it further, as well as the members talking about their memories of Sun Ra are included. Interestingly all the questions and answers are in English without any German interpreting for the German audience in attendance.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 2.35:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Interview with Producer Jim Newman (18:07)
In this vintage interview with the film's producer, he discusses about the start of the project as a documentary, about the casting sessions, the improvised scenes and sessions, Sun Ra's dissatisfaction with the original cut, and more, Newman is interviewed outside and background noise can sometimes be a problem, and in the latter portion of the interview there is background music of Sun Ra added in, possibly to drown out the background noise. There are clips of the film, presented in widescreen from the Plexifilm master, an there is a lot of digital combing during these parts.
in 480i AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1 and windowboxed 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Restoration Demo" featurette (1:05)
Clips comparison before restoration and after, including differences with the framing from 1.78:1 as seen on previous DVD editions to the full 1.33:1 frame, giving more information on the top and bottom.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1

Restoration Cinema Trailer (1:11)
The restoration trailer by Rapid Eye Movies is presented here, with picture quality equaling that of the restored film. The trailer has also been embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with burned-in German subtitles



Bonus Trailers
A series of trailers from Rapid Eye Movies are presented.

- Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2:25)
in 1080i 50Hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with burned-in German subtitles
- Funeral Parade of Roses (2:21)
in 720p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in Japanese LPCM 2.0 with burned-in German subtitles
- The Last Movie (2:16)
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with burned-in German subtitles
- Cemetery of Splendour (2:02)
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Thai LPCM 2.0 with burned-in German subtitles

Weblink (text)
Rapid Eye's address in text.


DISC TWO (DVD)

The Arkestra @ Babylon Cinema, Berlin (9:48)
Q&A with The Arkestra & Producer Jim Newman (31:27)
Interview with Producer Jim Newman (17:23)
"Restoration Demo" featurette (1:03)
Restoration Cinema Trailer (1:09)
Bonus Trailers
- Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2:25)
- Funeral Parade of Roses (2:16)
- The Last Movie (2:11)
- Cemetery of Splendour (1:58)
Weblink (text)

The film and same extras are repeated in the PAL format.


A good selection of extras are provided on this release, and note they are all exclusive. The US Plexifilm DVD from 2003 included vintage home movie footage from Sun Ra and an interview with Jim Newman and John Coney. Coney died in 2015 at the age of 79. It also included a booklet with writing from Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, notes on the production by John Coney, and an essay by professor John Szwed. The 40th Anniversary Edition from Harte Recordings had a commentary by Jim Newman, the home movies found on the Plexifilm DVD. The included book also had essays from screenplay writer Seth Hill and from Coney, a forward by Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, a text interview with actor Raymond Johnson, and comments about the production by Arkestra members Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson.

Packaging

The release comes in a Digipack case with overlapping discs. Five postcards are included in the case, which include stills, quotes from Sun Ra, and also a listing of releases in the Rapid Eye Movies numbered series. "Space Is the Place" is release number 4, as indicated on the spine. Though the postcard inside listing the first 10 titles of the numbered series is outdated, as changes were made and a few titles in the listing is now considered "wrong". The FSK-16 rating on the cover is a sticker on the plastic seal and is not on the actual packaging.

Overall

"Space Is the Place" is a uniquely bizarre science fiction / Blaxploitation / religious awakening / avant garde jazz indie film that only fittingly stars Sun Ra & His Arkestra. The grindhouse feel to the film's HD debut might detract some fans as the picture and sound are not fully restored. But for the inclined, it still comes as recommended.

The Film: B Video: C Audio: C Extras: B- Overall: B-

 


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