Rick James is one of the most dynamic, incomparable and multifaceted American musicians of all time — the Godfather of “Punk Funk” whose '70s and '80s megahits like “Super Freak,” “Give It to Me Baby,” “You and I” and “Mary Jane” are firmly entrenched as staples more than 40 years after their release.
The Buffalo, N.Y., native also lived a famously destructive lifestyle, and his long, dark struggles with substance abuse — often involving benders and orgies that lasted days at a time — tarnished his musical legacy, particularly when it came to a pair of arrests from ugly drug-fueled incidents involving violence against women, one of which landed James in jail for three years.
That moral dilemma is not the least bit lost on the creators of the new Showtime documentary Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James, who confront James’s notorious demons head-on. One of those creators is the late music icon’s own daughter and estate key holder Ty James, who worked closely with director Sacha Jenkins (Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, Word Is Bond) in crafting an illuminating, pipes-and-all look at a seminal artist’s against-all-odds rise and tumultuous downfall.
Bitchin' traces the 56-year life of James (James Ambrose Johnson Jr.) from his childhood in the projects of Buffalo’s impoverished East Side, where his mother ran numbers, to his escape to Toronto (dodging the Vietnam War draft), where he fell into a folk-rock circle including the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It shows James ultimately moving West to Los Angeles, where he would struggle before ultimately finding fame and excess, and his regular pilgrimages back to Buffalo where he found continual inspiration in the economically struggling but artistically and culturally rich city where he recorded most of his music with his Stone City Band.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Jenkins and James discuss approaching the story of the legendary funkster with honesty in a new era of accountability.
It was inevitable that there’d one day be a documentary about Rick James, given what an electric performer he was and colorful persona he had, but it’s also kind of surprising it didn’t happen sooner. Ty, when it came to the estate, were there a lot of opportunities that you guys passed up on? And what felt right about this film with Sacha?
James: I think you pretty much hit it on the head. Early on, people came to us and I made a couple of mistakes. I bumped my head a couple of times. So from that I learned it has to be right, and the people you get into bed with have to have the right projection. You know, to be able to tell his story is definitely monumental. And we wanted to make sure that it came across the right way.
Sacha, what excited you most about deep-diving here and telling Rick’s story?
Jenkins: I feel like the time is ripe for a Rick James film because he is a very contemporary guy. I always reference Pharrell, a guy who likes a little bit of everything and created something unique. Rick James did something like that years before. As African Americans, sometimes we box ourselves in or society boxes us in, in terms of what it is we can like or dislike. And Rick wasn't afraid to like lots of different things. And he was able to relate to so many different kinds of people. And the way the world moves now, I feel like he kind of laid the foundation for music and culture and communication and style. A lot of these things that are really important today, a lot of these things that involve influences that go well beyond what's in front of you, he was a pioneer of that.
The film devotes ample time to exploring Rick’s musical genius, of course, and how he developed and evolved his style from various genre influences into what would ultimately become punk funk. But how would you personally describe the essence of Rick’s musicality and what made it so iconic?
Jenkins: Well, punk funk is a great example of how he thought. He didn't think that his music sounded like punk, but he knew the attitude that punk was trying to express was something that he felt a connection to. … There's a difference between white rock 'n' roll and Black music. And the difference is there's a level of freedom in white rock 'n' roll that comes along with white privilege. Even if you're poor, there's a level of, “What are you singing about?” You’re singing about teenage angst. You're singing about depression. You know, things that are very human and common. But if you're a Black rock 'n' roll or a Black artist, what are you singing about? You're really singing about oppression. You're singing about sadness. You're singing about lack of freedom, right?
And rock 'n' roll and [musical expression] is the closest you can get to feeling free. So when Rick James is on stage, when Rick James is in the studio, making music, it's his way of trying to get free and feeling free. And I think that's what Rick James was all about. He was very conscious in terms of his identity and felt that wearing braids that were inspired by an African tribe was something that even in those days, even with Black pride and all these things happening, he went out on a limb doing because he believed in his identity and promoting the idea of his identity. And so his Black identity and all the things that he had gone through were evident in the music that he made. And he made music as a way to find a path to freedom. That's what I believe.
Ty, how emotional of an experience has this been for you, peeling off the layers off of your father's life and his legacy?
James: I mean, every day has been emotional since his passing [Rick James died in 2004], because you hear his music all over the world, anywhere you go. I just visited Jamaica a few days ago and we go to dinner and here comes “Mary Jane” playing in the background. So I deal with those emotions on a regular basis. This was kind of just refreshing being able to get everything out and showing a different side of him. So emotionally for me, I just had to tackle it every day, even the tough spots. There are days that are absolutely great. And then there's days that “Fire and Desire” might come on I can't turn the station fast enough before I shed a few tears. But because my dad is who he is, it's just kind of always like an emotional roller coaster.
There have been so many stories told about Rick, both positive and negative, over the years. What do you guys think are the biggest misconceptions about him that this film addresses?
Jenkins: I think people might think that the guy was on drugs 24 hours a day, and was a wild man and that that fueled his creativity. But he clearly at a young age had a real passion and desire to make it. And what people discount is failure, right? Failure is one of the most important things in life, because if you don't fail, you'll never win. And he did not give up. He was in all these other bands that I had never heard of. And then I heard the music and I was like, Wow, this music is pretty good. … But by the time he was fully realized, once you watch this film and you see all the stuff that he had gone through musically, you understand that he was in school. Like he had a PhD in music and in popular music and blues and R & B. He put all of his learnings into creating who he was. And I think he understood that Rick James and who he was as a man were two different people. And that's where the conflict comes in. When does Rick James take over the other guy? And so I think that's a really interesting way to look at him.
This film feels candid in depicting the darker chapters of his Rick’s life involving drugs and violence against women, which is right up front of the trailer, it’s in the marketing. How did you guys arrive at how you’d handle those more difficult aspects?
Jenkins: It's always great when you have a family's blessing to make something. And along with that comes a family's feelings and a family's emotions and a family’s stresses and the family's concerns about legacy. And we said to Ty, “Listen, this is journalism. And we all know there's multiple sides to this man. We just want you to know we're going to be fair and we're going to be balanced.” And Ty had that trust. That's the best possible way it could have been. If Ty was someone else, it could have easily been a nightmare.
Especially in the wake of #MeToo and the reckoning we’ve faced as a society, did it feel like a responsibility to confront that abuse and violence? And Ty has that been difficult for you to reconcile with as a woman?
James: I wouldn't say it's been difficult for me because I realized that we're all born with flaws and no man is perfect. And you know, to me, he has to answer to God. We all have to answer to God, and I'm very spiritual person. … He was challenged with a lot of demons. There were always demons in the background. So there's this good angel on one side, and then there's this other person in your ear saying, “No, come on, I think you should just go ahead and do this.” With adversity comes strength. And I think that he battled that all the time, especially having to go out and perform on a daily and on a nightly basis and give all of your heart and your soul to the crowd. It's very draining and we will never understand the magnitude, the difficulty of how much that takes out of you as a person.
So I'm just really, really proud, and I'm proud of the mistakes, because like Sacha said best, if you don't make mistakes, you can't learn and you can't grow and you can't prosper. I think that he was very accountable for his mistakes as a man. He did his time. The #MeToo movement is something that I'm totally in support of. I just definitely think it was a different time then. So a lot of things that flew back then would certainly not fly now. So I'm kind of glad that his era was his era.
Jenkins: And people should know that Ty was very honest about her own experiences with her father. And there was an incident where he unfortunately hurt her, physically. So the fact that she was able to share that and be honest about it, I think is one of the things that gives this film a real resonance. It's authentic and it's coming from people who really know and care and have complicated relationships. You know, we all have complicated relationships with our dads. And if your dad was Rick James, you, too, would have a conflict and even more complicated relationship with your dad. So she's very forthcoming in sharing her story. And I think that added a great value to what we created.
How do you guys looks at Rick’s legacy now? And did your viewpoint change at all over the course of making Bitchin’?
Jenkins: I learned that he is an enigma in many ways and culturally extremely literate in ways where he can put different languages together and create something wholly original. And I think the times that we're in now, we've seen so many musical innovations: house music, techno, rock 'n' roll, whatever. And young people are trying to figure out where they can go. Rick is a blueprint for where they can go.
And I think when you look at his complete presentation and you listened to his music, you could hear the world in his music. And you can also hear Buffalo. I think Buffalo was the core of who he was. And he admits that in the film. It wasn't until he went back home that he reconnected with who he was. And he was able to represent that on a broad scale. He had been trying to make it as a musician for years. He didn't make it until he was in his 30s. And he finally goes back home and stays with his mom at 30 and figures it out. It's because he was a sponge absorbing all of these life experiences. It's absorbing all these different languages and cultures and he created something that hasn't been replicated since.
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