by Jamie Moses
The talented musician Rick James, who died in 2004, led a life so legendary he is obviously a good subject for a documentary. Unfortunately, I don’t think the much-heralded Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James is the documentary he deserves.
Director Sacha Jenkins, who labels himself as a black filmmaker, with the emphasis on black, sloppily slapped together archival footage and interviews to make a generic rise-and-fall film that is nothing short of exploitation of a black artist. He might be forgiven for that since it’s an obvious way to make easy money but his film is filled with false myths about Rick James and for that, he can’t be forgiven.
There are many tragic stories of great black musicians like Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Michael Jackson, and so on. There is nothing wrong with telling these stories in a documentary but a filmmaker is obligated to get the story right. Jenkins, if weren’t so lazy, had an opportunity to clear up many false tales of Rick James but he didn’t bother to do the research.
The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June and will be available on Showtime beginning September 3, 2021. There are hundreds of reviews of the film online already and I read several dozen of them. The reviews fall into two categories, regurgitated press releases from the filmmakers that are being passed off as reviews and gushing essays of praise with not a shred of critical thinking. It makes one yearn for the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.
In a recent interview after a showing of the film at Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, when asked about his research process for making the film Jenkins said it was just listening to music, reading articles, and talking to people. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Jenkins. For sure his research was nothing out of the ordinary and that’s the problem with this film.
In addition to performance videos, Jenkins presents a collage of comments from James’ family members and celebrities like Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane, and Bootsy Collins, and some academics and journalists. But it’s doubtful any of these stars really knew Rick well, and the academics and journalists didn’t personally know him at all. If he wanted to talk to a celebrity who knew him, he should have talked to Eddie Murphy.
The film opens with shots of Rick James’ daughter Ty listening to her father’s music while driving a convertible and follows her to a storage garage. While looking through Rick’s things, Ty begins to open up about some hard facts, like how absent James was as a father. That immediately diminishes her knowledge of Rick, in spite of the fact that she’s currently running the Rick James family business.
The other family member Jenkins depended on was Rick’s brother Carmen Sims. This was surprising to me because I never heard of Carmen Sims nor has anyone I know in Buffalo. Since I happen to know Rick’s only living full brother LeRoi Johnson I asked him about Carmen.
“They are always quoting him,” said LeRoi. “He’s in his late eighties and he’s a brother who didn’t grow up here in Buffalo, never lived in Buffalo until after Rick’s success, and doesn’t know very much about Rick or the family. He probably only saw him ten times in life before he started work for us. I fired him after about six months. Now he’s making a living off Rick. He walks around with Rick James paraphernalia and is a Rick James billboard.
“His father’s name is Brooks. He’s my mother’s first kid, she wasn’t even married. He never grew up with us yet now all these people turn to him as the authority on Rick James and they don’t to me or my sister Penny who managed him before he died. Trotting him out as Rick’s brother is the filmmaker trying to give his film credibility but people who know me and who knew Rick are asking ‘Who is this? I didn’t know you had a brother named Carmen.’”
The fact that Jenkins used Carmen, who has only a superficial knowledge of Rick and not LeRoi reflects the serious weakness of his research.
LeRoi is only 11 months younger than Rick and the two brothers grew up together, played basketball and hockey together, played drums at Buffalo’s African American Cultural Center when they were young., etc, etc. According to Leroi Rick, the older brother was the leader and he was a very mischievous kid. No surprise there.
LeRoi was not only Rick’s best friend, he was his manager and traveled with Rick as his road manager. And because Leroi was a Georgetown Law graduate and former executive director of the DC Minority Business Opportunity Office in Washington and had concert experience he became Rick’s lawyer, negotiating all of Rick’s contracts and managing and negotiating contracts for others in the James stable, like Val Young, Process and the Doo Rags, and the Mary Jane Girls. Moreover, Rick was signed to Leroi’s company Leroia & Assoc. with both Motown and Warner Bros.
The bottom line is Jenkins did not talk to the one person who knows more about Rick James than anyone. What could Jenkins have learned if he’d done proper research? We can start with the myths that Jenkins perpetuates in his film.
You will read thousands of articles online that claim Rick sued MC Hammer over “Can’t touch this.” FALSE
“It’s not true,” said LeRoi Johnson. “Never happened. What happened was I went to Rick and said we need to start licensing some sampling because the sampling thing is hot in music right now, this was in the late 80s. I said I’ll get some rappers to use your music. He said, well you can do that but I’m not going to participate. So, I got my publicist to go out and we got EPMD, we got LL Cool J, Will Smith, Salt ‘N Pepa, Ja Rule, all these people started sampling us. We went to MC Hammer who was just rising and got him to do it. Then Rick hears “You can’t touch this” and says that’s my music and made some statement he was going to sue. But that was before he talked to me and found out Hammer had permission and that we gave him a license to use the music. He didn’t know because he didn’t participate in the sample licensing. And when the erroneous suing story became news Rick said screw it let them think what they want.
“But that’s something you can always ask MC Hammer. That’s all you’ve got to do. Did Jenkins do that? No. I was Rick’s lawyer. If we were suing Hammer, I would have been the one doing it. did Jenkins ask me about it, the lawyer? No.”
Rick went AWOL and ran to Canada because he didn’t want to go to Vietnam. FALSE.
“Rick went AWOL for the simple reason he was not a disciplined person. You couldn’t get Rick to do anything consistently, whether you were his mother or the Navy. The whole idea of him going into the service, which my mother pressed him into doing, was to give him discipline because Rick was out of control. He was only 16 and she wanted to get his ass out of the house. Our father had been in the navy so Rick went into the Navy. I have a photo of Rick in the service at Great Lakes Michigan Naval Camp, it’s the boot camp where they train you. That’s as far as he got. Rick was only in the Navy for a few weeks because Rick is not a person you can discipline, so he just left.
He went to Canada because the MP, military police, were coming to our house looking for him for going AWOL. Rick was just a wild 16-year-old kid. He shouldn’t even have been in the Navy, he only got in at 16 because he used someone else’s identification who also had the last name Johnson and was a couple of years older. Although years later Rick said he left because he didn’t want to go to Vietnam he adopted that position after the fact.
The cocaine and penis myth.
Like dozens of other media outlets, a recent Boston Globe article reviewing Jenkins’ movie repeats the film’s many factual errors. Rick did not buy the Hearst Mansion. Rick and Neil Young did not start the Mynah Birds, they were among a rotating group of musicians and happened to be in the band at the same. Rick did not sue M.C. Hammer. The reasons for Rick not going into the service are wrong.
The Globe also repeats the story that Rick went into Motown President Jay Lasker’s office to give them his next LP. After that, he poured cocaine onto Lasker’s desk, snorted it, and then jumped onto the desk, pulled his penis out and shoved it in his Lasker’s face, yelling, “Sell my goddamn record!”
“That’s totally false,” said LeRoi. “It’s some bullshit Kerry Gordy, Barry’s son, made up because he’s a delusional who wants to be relevant. If you watch the movie, you’ll see he says ‘In 1982 when we came off tour, we had a terrible tour and Rick was pissed off.’
“His first lie is he was on tour with us. He never went on any tour with us. The second lie is the tour was not terrible. 1982 was our most successful tour and it was not a flop and Rick was not pissed.”
How can anyone possibly give any credibility to Sacha Jenkins? If you listen to him you have to walk away thinking this guy is an idiot.
In that interview at Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, when asked what inspired him to make the film Jenkins said it was because he learned that when Rick got off the bus in Canada that someone called him the N-word.
What? Does that mean we can expect approximately 37 million more documentaries from Jenkins for all those who get called the N-word at some point? The honest answer would have been I wanted some easy money and I wanted to shore up my pretense of being an authentic black filmmaker.
Here is another ridiculous statement from Jenkins during the interview. “Rick didn’t make it until he was thirty. Today if you don’t make it by the time you’re 22 it’s over. No rapper is going to keep rapping in their thirties.
Is that true? No, of course not. Every single one of the top five selling hip hop artists is well over thirty. Here is the age of the top five listed hip hot artists in order of sales: 1. Eminem 48; 2. Drake 34; 3. Kanye West 45; 4. Jay Z 51; 5. Lil Wayne 38. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous Snoop Dog 49 and Nicki Minaj 38. All of these artists are still very active and still dominating the charts.
When asked why Rick James wasn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Jenkins said “White Supremacy.” Does this guy know anything about anything? Of the 16 nominees this year 7 were black. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has dozens and dozens of black artists from Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton to Grandmaster Flash, Donna Summer, Al Green, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, The Coasters, Isaac Hayes, Ink Spots, Isley Brothers, Howlin’ Wolf, and more and more and more.
At the end of the Martha’s Vineyard interview, Jenkins is asked what he wants people to take away from his film. His answer was “How do you feel about an artist who in real life outside of his art wasn’t the best person?” Wait a minute, Jenkins, I thought you said you made the film because someone called Rick the N-word.
There’s also some really crappy animation in the movie. These crude computer graphics are used to illustrate Rick’s verbal aggression and physical coercion in the bedroom but they just come across as creepy movie making.
As it says in the headline of this article, the bottom line is Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James is nothing but clickbait and just reading the title should tell you that.