Showtime Documentary Reminds Us: He’s Rick James

More than 20 years after his hitmaking heyday, Rick James became a household name to a whole new generation in 2004 when Dave Chappelle mocked his brash personality with the catchphrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!”

The singer was still around and trying to catch a break after drug binges, prison, and record company indifference had sidelined his career. So James played into the lampoon when he appeared on the 2004 BET Awards with what was supposed to be a comeback performance, declaring the catchphrase anew as if to make it his own. He’d be dead two months later.

The phrase repeats in the title of the compelling new documentary on the musician’s career, Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, premiering on Showtime tonight, Friday September 3.

It’s surprising that there hasn’t previously been a full film documenting the singer’s remarkable life of ups and downs. Director Sacha Jenkins, who previously directed Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, takes on the task with a verve that reflects the artist at hand.

Taking from old interviews and rare live performances, as well as interviews with ex-wives and lovers, his kids, and members of his Stone City Band, it tells a full tale of what was anything but an overnight success story.

Born in Buffalo, James began playing in bands as a teenager. A member of the US Naval Reserves, he fled to Canada when he got called up and fell into a burgeoning Toronto music scene that eventually had him in a band with Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, before they went off to form Buffalo Springfield. Signed to Motown as a rare rock band, we hear the Mynah Birds single (and it’s pretty good) but James was caught for desertion and the band stalled.

After playing with a variety of struggling bands in LA, James ended up back in Buffalo where he created a band of the city’s best musicians. Using his Motown connections, he was signed to its Gordy Records label and began writing a solo debut that caught on pretty quickly with songs like “Mary Jane,” who no less than Ice Cube says opened his eyes on how much one could say in a song (this one, for example, was straight up about marijuana).

James built on the success of that single, and “You & I,” to create his biggest album, the 1981 Street Songs that reflected life in the ghetto, police brutality (with “Mr. Policeman”), and undeniable hits of “Give It To Me Baby” and the enduring “Super Freak,” which we learn was added at the last minute. As popular as it became, some black scholars disdain “Super Freak” as not being representative of the album as a whole—and for becoming such a white frat boy anthem.

By then, James wasn’t an anomaly, he was the face of the new Motown, bringing life to the label in the early ’80s, writing and recording with The Temptations, and helping create new stars from Teena Marie to the Mary Jane Girls. He stood out not only with his music, but with his approach, adopting African-derived braided hair, flashy costumes that wouldn’t be out of place in a glam rock band, and a generally wild excess that borrowed from George Clinton’s Funkadelic. His music, though distinct, felt to be part of that funk world as well.

The documentary pauses from time to time to use that technique of taking apart classic tracks to fully analyze and appreciate all that he put in them. As original as he was, James had to fight off competitors, including the one person of that era who could match his funky creativity, Prince. Though he invited Prince to open some of his tours, he was rankled when the equally competitive Prince started using the same crowd-involvement tricks James had used.

Later, James sued M.C. Hammer for his use of “Super Freak” to propel his hit “Can’t Touch This.” James fought the music industry and MTV specifically for not showing his videos—or those of other Black artists. James’ drug use and sexual exploits began to overshadow his music as well. And as his music sales faded, there were ugly stories of crack binges and infamous cases of assaulting  two different women and holding them hostage. He spent more than two years in prison.

Comeback attempts didn’t quite work, though that BET appearance with Teena Marie gave a memorable cap to his career before he died at only 56. That his music endures is seen in a reunion show in Buffalo by the Stone City Band, the comments of those analyzing his music, and in his own offspring, such as his son Tazman, seen briefly at the film’s end.

The entertaining overview Bitchin’ demonstrates that even in a time of many music documentaries, there’s a need to catch up with the stories of such funky forefathers.

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