At the height of his chart-topping career at Motown in the late 1970s through the 1980s, Rick James was considered the artist that saved the giant 1960s R&B record label.
The documentary “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” tells all before and after the height of his success. The director and executive producer Sacha Jenkins assembled an impressive range of footage and commentators that will keep you engaged and doing a lot of chair dancing. The film premieres on Sept. 30 on Showtime.
From his childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., to his death in 2004, all James, aka James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., wanted to do was get his music out. He built a music style based on many music genres. His mother introduced him to jazz and blues but by the time he began recording, he had grown to love folk-rock, George Clinton and Sly Stone to punk. James put it all in a big barrel he called “funk-punk.”
Along the way, he met Neil Young with whom he formed a group called the Mynah Birds. Motown signed them. That Motown contract for James and Young would be brief because the Navy showed up. James found himself thrown in the brig for five weeks for going AWOL.
After serving time in the brig, James moved to Los Angeles and reconnected with his music contemporaries from Toronto. The reconnection did not click. James returned to Motown and assembled a band consisting of his friends from Buffalo — the Stone City Band.
“He ended up changing how Motown worked,” said Jenkins, noting the difference from James’ first stint at the label. “Before at Motown, a group of writers and producers would get together and dictate your style and sound. Rick James took that all in house and did it himself.”
The first album, “Come Get It!” in 1978, produced the hits “You & I” and “Mary Jane.” James, the Stone City Band and backup singers delivered an electrifying sound and stage presence. Berry Gordy, founder and CEO of Motown, liked what he heard and saw with James.
“All of that came from his traveling and cross-pollinating culturally with a broad range of people,’” Jenkins said. “You hear so many sounds and influences in ‘You and I.’ It’s that song that made him such a stand out artist,”
The “star” attention fueled James to engage in risky behavior. Drugs and explicit lyrics became his norm. In 1981, “Street Songs,” was his fifth and biggest album. That was due in part to the crossover song “Super Freak.” Supposedly, James wrote that song with a pop groove and lyrics he knew would be yelled out during parties.
“‘Super Freak’ was written for white kids at fraternity parties,” said Harry Weinger, VP of A&R and Product Development at Universal/Motown.
James’ life took a path that seemed familiar at that time in the music business. Heavy drug use, missed performances and not paying his band became the norm. His last album for Motown did not yield a hit resulting in his being released from the label.
After signing with Warner Records, James faced legal issues on top of cocaine addiction. In 1993, James would be convicted on two separate instances of kidnapping and torturing two different women while under the influence of crack cocaine. The result: a three-year sentence at Folsom State Prison. After his release from prison, he suffered a stroke.
James gained newfound fame after being parodied in a skit on Dave Chapelle’s Comedy Central series in 2004. James died later that year at age 56.
“Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” gives a lot. James’ daughter and film executive producer, Ty James, offers insight into her father’s demons. On-screen comments from Bootsy Collins and Ice Cube reinforce James’ creativity and influence. His real relationship with Teena Marie is revealed.
“We wanted to give people the full picture of who he was,” Jenkins said. “He wasn’t perfect. He did some horrible things, allegedly. For some, he was convicted. Growing up, he had some trauma and abuse. Maybe that informed some of the decisions he made in life.”