The prevalence of documentaries about musicians is a curse, because most of these films do a terrible job of showcasing music. One rare and moving exception is the work of the director Robert Mugge, whose film “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise”—about the musician and bandleader whose multimedia and pan-cultural activities made him one of the prime artists of Afrofuturism—is one of the most satisfying musical portraits I’ve ever seen. (It is streaming on SnagFilms and Amazon.) The film’s revelatory perspectives on Sun Ra’s work arise not only from the filmmaker’s analytical understanding of it, and the discussions that he films with Sun Ra and other members of the band, but also from his approach to filming music itself, in rehearsal and concert.
To see what’s exceptional about what Mugge does in “A Joyful Noise,” it’s worth considering what more conventional filmmakers tend to do in their films about other musicians. Most often, scenes of performance, whether taken from archival clips or filmed anew for the documentary at hand, run for a few seconds at a time before being covered on the soundtrack by voice-overs. It’s a pet peeve of mine. Even insightful and devoted filmmakers often prioritize conveying information and in the process lose sight—and sound—of the wonder, the miracle, the exertion at the core of the film: the work of the artist whose achievements they’re exploring.
The filming of music is a severe test of directorial artistry, because it’s detached from the moorings of plot and the delivery of dialogue. It’s where filmmakers’ aesthetic character is severely exposed, where they prove whether they can approach the artists they’re filming personally, subjectively, meeting the musicians’ artistic consciousness with their own. It’s often believed, or assumed, that documentary filmmaking is less a matter of style than dramatic filmmaking. Documentaries about the performing arts prove that this isn’t so. What’s more, with documentary filmmaking, aesthetics are also a matter of ethics. The readiness to reduce or subordinate musicians’ art to mere information is more than clumsy; it’s disrespectful. (Working with existing clips of performances is a test, too—film editing and the presentation of archival material is as much a matter of art as is the use of a camera.)
Mugge’s documentary isn’t a biography (for that, I’d highly recommend John F. Szwed’s book “Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra”); the movie is set intensely and actively in the present tense. He filmed the band, called the Arkestra, in the course of two years, at and around its home base in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood (where Sun Ra and his core of musicians lived and worked together), and in rehearsal and performance in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Mugge doesn’t use archival clips; he films the artists in action, displaying the varied art—of costume, dance, song, and over-all spectacle, along with innovative music—that Sun Ra’s ideas inspire. He also films them talking about their work. The film’s interviews are more like conversations; though Mugge doesn’t put himself into the frame, his rapport with the musicians, and with Sun Ra above all, is crucial to the film’s substance.
Sun Ra, who was in his mid-sixties at the time of the film’s shooting, is first seen amid Egyptian artifacts at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, speaking of the limitations of earthly creation and the creative power that comes from outer space—a prime declaration of the myth-centered futurism that his musical performances dramatize. (To get a sense of the mighty cultural fecundity of the idea, consider its translation into altogether blander realms—the premise of “Star Wars,” which sets its high-tech sci-fi adventures “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . .”) Mugge films this talk in a single slowly roving, handheld shot that follows the thread of Sun Ra’s thought while also following his amble through the exhibit—paying attention to his gait, to the touch of his hand, and to his facial expressions and his gaze.