Sun Ra returns to Earth in his spaceship after travelling the cosmos in search of wisdom. He duels with the mysterious Overseer whilst opening an Outer Space Employment Agency and trying to convince the black youth of America to follow him to another planet.
Sun Ra was an avant-garde jazz musician, composer, poet, mystic and philosopher. He was also leader of the Arkestra for over 40 years, an ever-changing musical ensemble that made more than 100 albums and recorded over 1,000 songs. He was also known for his elaborate stage shows, which heavily featured Ancient Egyptian iconography and outer space trappings. He was also from the planet Saturn. Apparently.
The film opens with our mystical hero on an unnamed planet making plans to visit Earth and connect with his black brothers and sisters. There are some impressively trippy visuals to enjoy in this sequence, even if the great man’s intentions might seem a little vague to the uninitiated. From there we cut to a Chicago nightclub in 1943 where his performance on the keyboard creates some kind of supernatural event and a full-blown panic. Cut from there to a face-off in the desert opposite the white-suited Overseer (Ray Johnson), which involves drawing tarot cards and playing for the future of the Earth’s black people. From there it’s a strange musical piece followed by the Overseer cruising in his open top convertible and Sun Ra’s (unconvincing) spaceship shooting coloured rays as it prepares to land in Oakland so he can deliver his plans for the future. The media wait with bated breath for his proclamations! And all this in the first 15 minutes. Yes, folks, we’re definitely on the weird end of the banana here!
To be fair to the film, although it’s obviously low-budget and stitched together from various bits and pieces, director John Coney does manage to maintain a coherent narrative throughout (just!) as Sun Ra pursues his ministry on Earth whilst Johnson attempts to frustrate his efforts. The frequent cuts back to the confrontation in the desert, where Johnson keeps a running score on proceedings, is a fairly obvious nod to the soldier playing chess with Satan in Ingmar Bergman’s classic ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957).
There’s an unscripted feel to Sun Ra’s appearance at a black youth club, where members dis his silver shoes, and seem less than impressed by his somewhat vague declarations. Johnson turns to The Man for help, recruiting a couple of white NASA scientists to aid his cause. In a surprisingly unpleasant scene, they beat on a couple of prostitutes after being unable to perform and kidnap our mystical hero, forcing him to listen to marching band music as a form of torture.
What is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this cosmic groove is Sun Ra himself. He has no natural charisma in front of the camera at all, delivering his lines in a flat monotone and rarely allowing an expression to cross his face. This despite writing all his own dialogue. It’s left to Johnson, who had a bit in ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971), to do all the heavy lifting in the acting stakes and his breezy performance is the film’s greatest asset. There is some subtext to the ﬁlm regarding the rights of black people in a white-controlled society, but it’s not particularly insightful, original or telling. How much an audience enjoys the film will, of course, but partly dependent on how much they dig the man’s sound, but for everyone else there’s little here but curiosity value.
Su Ra last departed this Earthly realm in 1993. He is not expected to return soon.