He’s not as famous as Griffith or Land nor as rich as Spielberg or Lucas. But Robert Mugge has hit many top notes with the more than 30 films he’s directed, the majority of which have focused on music and musicians. Says he: “In my films, music frequently serves as a leaping-off point for discussions of social issues, cultural issues, political issues, even religious issues. In fact, I tend to see music as a metaphor for the human spirit.”
A trio of Mugge masterpieces are about to be released by MVD Home Entertainment, each one a must-see-to-be-appreciated flick.
“Black Wax” (available November 13) is Mugge’s 1982 portrait of Gil Scott-Heron, the great poet-singer-songwriter and rap music forefather. It was the first American film to be fully funded by Britain’s then-brand-new Channel 4 Television and also likely the first film to use Steadicam from first frame to last. Black Wax centers on the man Melody Maker called “the most dangerous musician alive” and many dubbed the forefather of rap music – and his 10-piece MidnightBand. It was filmed entirely on location in Washington, D.C., primarily at the Wax Museum Nightclub (now defunct). Songs performed by the band include such potent political numbers as “Winter in America,” “Alien,” “Johannesburg,” “Storm Music,” “Waiting for the Axe to Fall,” “Gun,” and “B-Movie” (a scathing analysis of how and why Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States). Between songs, Mr. Scott-Heron is shown reciting his equally powerful poems (“Paint it Black,” “Black History,” “Billy Green is Dead,” The H2O-Gate Blues,” and “Whitey on the Moon”), leading the camera on a unique tour of Washington, D.C. (from the monuments of official Washington through the minority neighborhoods that make up most of the rest), and finally confronting the “ghosts of America’s past” (life-sized wax figures of John Wayne, Uncle Sam, Neil Armstrong, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, four U.S. Presidents, and black leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King). This is Mr. Scott-Heron at the absolute peak of his powers. The politics is always entertaining, and the entertainment is nothing if not political. Transferred to HD from the original 16mm film and lovingly restored.
“Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise” (coming to DVD and Blu-ray on December 11) is Mugge’s definitive documentary portrait of jazz visionary Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Years ahead of his time, composer, keyboard player, bandleader, poet, and philosopher Sun Ra coupled images of outer space with those of ancient Egypt, acoustic instruments with electronic ones, and modern American musical genres (jazz, soul, gospel, blues, swing) with the sounds of Africa and the Caribbean. He also combined his music with dance, poetry, colorful costumes and backdrops, and pure theatricality, influencing other innovative musical ensembles as diverse as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and he was among the first musicians to use electronic keyboards and portable synthesizers in public performance.
For his one-hour documentary, Mugge spent two years shooting Sun Raand members of his so-called jazz Arkestra in a wide variety of situations. Ensemble performances were filmed at Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom, at Danny’s Hollywood Palace in Philadelphia, and on the roof of Philadelphia’s International House on the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Sun Ra’s poetry and mythological pronouncements were filmed in the Egyptian Room of the University of Pennsylvania’s anthropology museum, in a sculpture garden in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., and inside and outside of the house he shared with key band members in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
Interviews with band members were filmed inside and outside of the house, as well as inside their nearby Pharaoh’s Den food store, and a band rehearsal and a solo keyboard performance were filmed in the house as well. Transferred to HD from the original 16mm film and lovingly restored for the best possible viewing experience. Songs performed in the film include such Sun Ra classics as “Astro Black,” “Mister Mystery,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” “Along Came Ra/The Living Myth,” “Spaceship Earth (Destination Unknown),” “Requiem for Trevor Johnson,” and many more. This release also includes extended audio versions of these and other songs.
“Hawaiian Rainbow” (released with “Kumu Hula: Keepers Of A Culture”; available December 11) is Mugge’s feature-length films on Hawaiian music and dance, both traditional and modern. In the ’70s, Hawai’i began what is known as the Second Hawaiian Renaissance, a period of renewed interest in native Hawaiian history, language, crafts, music, dance, and spirituality. Out of that period of resurgence came enormous social, cultural, and political excitement and activity which, to a great extent, continues to this day.
Inspired by what he encountered during his first visit to Hawai’i in 1986, Mugge joined forces with state politician Dr. Neil Abercrombie (later to become the U.S. Congressman from Honolulu and then Governor of the state), University of Hawai’i ethnomusicologists Dr. Ricardo D. Trimillos and Jay W. Junker, kumu hula and educator Vicky Holt Takamine, and Honolulu Academy of Arts film programmer Ann Brandman to produce an 85-minute documentary on Hawaiian music shot largely on the Island of O’ahu, and then, with the help of Cove Enterprises executives Roy Tokujo and Ronald Letterman, an 85 minute documentary on Hawaiian dance shot on all six of the primary Hawaiian Islands. In both cases, Dr. Abercrombie was able to convince his former colleagues in the state legislature to fund the films because of their educational and promotional value for the state.
“Hawaiian Rainbow”, a 1987 film about Hawaiian music, examines Hawai’i’s traditional chants, percussion, ukulele, slack-key and steel guitar, male and female falsetto, and lush vocal harmonies, many of them accompanied by authentic Hawaiian dance styles. Kumu Hula: Keepers Of A Culture, a 1989 film about the art of the hula, explores Hawaiian dance traditions going back to 500AD when Polynesians first arrived in the islands. Those traditions have been passed along from generation to generation by kahuna (priests and sages) and kumu hula (master teachers). In this film, shot at exotic locations throughout the islands, Vicky Holt Takamine and other respected kumu hula reveal ancient traditions that have survived, flourished, and (where appropriate) evolved in spite of attempts by Nineteenth Century missionaries, plantation owners, and US Marines to repress Hawai’i’s indigenous culture. Together, these two films present Hawaiian art and life as few outsiders have seen it: rich, expressive, colorful, and utterly unique. In 2015, both films were transferred to HD video from their original 16mm and stereo audio masters and lovingly restored.