Review: Bitchin’ brilliantly captures the outrageous Rick James. | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, September 16th, 2021  

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James

Studio: Showtime
Director: Sacha Jenkins

Sep 03, 2021 Web Exclusive
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“You know that’s going to be good” was the general consensus when word got around about Showtime’s documentary on Rick James, Bitchin’: The Sound and the Fury of Rick James. How could it not be? James ticks every box: talent, originality, personality, debauchery, addiction, assault, abuse, prison. Bitchin’ has all of those elements and a bag of chips—with a cherry on top.

For the VHI: Behind the Music generation, the excellent series gave a strong taste of James’ tumultuous life in one of its 1998 episodes. The docu-series Unsung did a similar episode in 2015. In 2009—five years after his death—there was I’m Rick James, another documentary feature. These previous explorations of James’ life include many of the same individuals as Bitchin’, which, directed and co-written by Sacha Jenkins (Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men), gives an in-depth account with minute details—warts and all.

The film starts with Ty, James’ glamorous daughter, going through her father’s storage space, an excursion which could be its own motion picture. It’s an interesting start, as seeing his vault of belongings brings with it a curated museum exhibition feel. This heightens the anticipation to experience the journey that resulted in such a collection. The next few minutes are an extension of this scene with a sizzle reel-like montage zipping through many points in James’ life, titillating viewers who figuratively buckle in for a wild ride.

After this point is when Bitchin’ settles into its rhythm. It rewinds to James’ hometown of Buffalo, New York. A tour of the town is given by fellow hometown rapper, Conway the Machine, who conducts it from the back of the car with a blunt on hand. James’ siblings (and James himself through archive interviews) narrate his childhood of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, plus the illegal activity he was roped into by his mother when he was still a minor.

Bitchin’ follows James when he moves to Canada to avoid the military at the time of the Vietnam War. He fits in tidily with the musicians in Toronto such as Neil Young and Robbie Robertson, with whom he performed. Photograph after jaw-dropping archival photograph show baby-faced musical legends in groups with James as the token Black guy.

James eventually makes his way to Los Angeles, after an unsuccessful stint in Detroit where with his avant garde rock aesthetic he did not fit in with Motown and where he made no headway at the competitive label. Ironically, it was after he left Los Angeles and returned to Buffalo that he signed to Motown, during the time when the label was shifting to artists writing and producing their own music. James, with his dab hand at production, was the transition artist for Motown.

He was a hitmaker for Teena Marie, Smokey Robinson, Eddie Murphy, and the band formed by his backup vocalists: the Mary Jane Girls. James’ unique blend of pop and funk set him apart from other artists with standout hits such as “Super Freak,” “Give It to Me Baby” and “Mary Jane,” which catapulted James into the stardom he was chasing since he was 15 years old, and with it, the clichéd musician lifestyle.

Living with his whole band in Randolph Hearst’s mansion in Los Angeles is where James created his own Sodom and Gomorrah. His band members nonchalantly describe sexual encounters of what is charisma on stage turning into abuse off stage. It is here that James’ children enter his life, in this kid-inappropriate setting with the opposite of a model father. They casually recount his outrageous and aggressive treatment of them with a marked detachment.

At the same time, James was vociferously speaking out about the exclusion of Black artists from MTV’s playlist—“We’re sitting in the back of the bus, television style”—and Motown not pushing his album. His aggressive approach had a result, but not for him. Michael Jackson became MTV’s darling while Lionel Richie got the benefit of Motown’s marketing power. Meanwhile, Prince was blatantly copying James in numerous ways—while opening for him on tour.

When James’ records were not played anymore, the songs that sampled him shot to the top of the charts—most famously by MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” which he was strongly against—while enjoying the monetary benefits, which were significantly more than the original’s release.

One of the stand-out inclusions in the film is James’ wife, Tanya Hijazi. Infamously meeting when she was 17 and he 38, James found his perfect foil in Hijazi who kept up with his extensive drug use and sexual exploits without missing a beat. Between the two of them, they were charged with multiple sexual assaults, including with a crack pipe and a heated up knife. “He was not in the orgy. He watched the orgy,” states Hijazi in her chain smoker’s rasp. The extent of James’ drug abuse becomes apparent during his trial where he falls asleep, the result of getting high every night.

Both convicted, James spent five years and four months in Folsom Prison, during which time his son with Hijazi, Tazmin, is born. Also during this time James got off drugs and wrote 400 songs. According to his manager, Berry Gordy’s son Kerry, no one was interested in seeing a clean James; they wanted the super freak. James was quick to oblige, slipping back into his drug habits. Hijazi matter-of-factly states he was never straight more than three months at a time and they spent most of their marriage at Cedars-Sinai.

Not unexpectedly, James developed many health issues. But with Dave Chappelle’s derogatory and hugely popular Rick James skit, which he claimed and repurposed, he was re-popularized with the still-relevant catchphrase, “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”

The graphics of Bitchin’ match the film’s over-the-top, campy look, a reflection of its subject’s part-spaceman/part disco-king/part court jester appearance. The running narration of the film by a disembodied James goes a long way in propelling the story and bringing an authenticity to it, and is a complement to the superb editing.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of Bitchin’ is the input of James’ band members in Stone City Band. They are introduced one-by-one by James’ voice, flipping back and forth from archival images of them to present-day. These individuals are a big part of the storytelling, as are Nile Rodgers, Berry Gordy’s family, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Ice Cube music executives, attorneys, music critics and scholars. All help stitch the through-thread of racism, which underscores Bitchin’.

The film closes with Taz James—James’ son with Hijazi—who makes his first appearance in the last scene. An aspiring rapper, Taz’s late arrival brings with it both a feeling of confusion and the continuation of James’ legend.

Never a dull moment, Bitchin’ packages the excess and outrageousness of Rick James’ life, balancing it with his triumphs and everlasting contributions to music. (www.sho.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10



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