INTERVIEW

"Somebody's got to wear the leather pants": Rick James doc filmmaker on the infamous rock star

Sacha Jenkins spoke to Salon about making a film about the guy from Buffalo who embraced an over-the-to life

By Gary M. Kramer
Published September 2, 2021 8:01PM (EDT)
Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James (Kory Mello/Obscured Pictures/Showtime)
Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James (Kory Mello/Obscured Pictures/Showtime)

Rick James may be as well known for his No. 1 hit, "Superfreak," (which featured a hook that allowed it to crossover to white audiences) as he was for his drug addiction and brushes with the law. (James served three years of a five-year sentence for assaulting two women and avoided other convictions.) Moreover, his hook from "Superfreak" was later sampled in MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This," (earning him more money than the original record). He also became known to a younger generation through the catchphrase, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" when it was said on a segment of "Chappelle's Show."

But with Showtime's "Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James," director Sacha Jenkins uncovers some lesser-known facts about James. He collected money for his mother who was running numbers in Buffalo as a child, and he went AWOL from the Navy, hiding out in Toronto, where he made music with the likes of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson — before they were "The Band" — as well as Neil Young and Bruce Palmer (pre-"Buffalo Springfield"). James also wrote songs for Motown, but was frustrated at the lack of opportunities, and headed to California, where he eventually started his own band. Wisely, he did not attend Jay Sebring's party the night of the Tate-LaBianca murders when invited. James also spoke out against MTV for their reluctance to show videos by Black musicians, which did his as much harm as it did good. 

Jenkins' enjoyable documentary uses animation, archival footage and interviews — with James as well as his daughter Ty, his exes Syville Morgan and Tanya Hijazi, and various bandmates and musicians including Ice Cube and Nile Rodgers, among others — to show James warts and all. His penchant for excessive showmanship may have fueled his self-destruction and years of drug addiction, and his toxic behavior was rooted in his growing up in an abusive household. But "Bitchin'" shows that when James was focused on his music, he was driven and successful. 

Jenkins talked with Salon about Rick James and making "Bitchin'." 

What do you recall about first hearing Rick James, and what did his music mean to you?

My dad was a filmmaker, Horace Byrd Jenkins III, and he was making a film in New Orleans in the summer of 1981. I remember hearing Rick James and Teena Marie back to back to back that whole summer. I just have such fond memories of that moment. I'm 50 years old, so my memories of Rick James go back that far.

Why make this film now? What motivated you to explore James, whose life was as surprising as it was complicated. You certainly get at both his sound and his fury.

I felt like the way culture works now, particularly for folks of color, the world is way more open and accessible. You can like a little rock and roll and ride a skateboard and still be an authentic African American or Caribbean American. When Rick James was doing what he did, he was stepping out of the box. He wound up making music that was potent because he was a student of many people, places, and cultures, on a very authentic level. He is not just Neil Young's Black friend; he is Neil Young's friend. They were collaborating and making music together, and it's a cultural exchange, and it's an American-Canadian exchange. He's in a foreign land on the run from the U.S. Navy. He was a really interesting guy who to me was very contemporary. Look at Pharrell, who has a broad range of influences culturally, from skateboarding, to BMX and to rock and roll, and he has made all this "Black music." I think Rick James was a prototype of folks like Pharrell. So, making "Bitchin'" was an interesting opportunity to tell a contemporary story about a man who is no longer here. 

In your film, a teacher once said that James would be either a hoodlum or a great entertainer. He is said to have too much adulation, entitlement, and was emotionally ungrounded. What are your observations about his personality? He was a showman, but he was self-destructive. How do you reconcile his genius and toxicity which gets such a balanced treatment in the doc? 

His music and persona are a reflection of his experiences of a Black man in America. America loves when you are creative and "articulate," which he was by traditional standard of American English. He was a thoughtful, articulate man. He knew how to relate to lots of different people. But when you consider that he is technically introduced to crime at a very young age, so when he's doing crimes as an adult, then he is being shunned. But why is he doing crimes in the first place? Why was his mother running numbers in the first place? She did it to provide for her family. The young Rick James wouldn't have been exposed to crime if his mother didn't have to do it to take care of him and his siblings. I think that who he became and the music he made was a reflection and reaction to his environment. Some things you inherently can't escape. 

Can you talk about your approach to the narrative? You feature animation and talking heads, interviews and performance clips. Given all that there is to say about James, what decisions did you make about the anecdotes to include?

In many ways, he was a sort of Forest Gump of music culture for a few decades. Finding stories that were both sensational but also spoke to passions and convictions. He railed against MTV who wouldn't play his music, or allegedly, in a cocaine fit, when the record label didn't do what he wanted on the promotional side of things — he spoke out. A lot of the things we chose to highlight, particularly in the animation, seemed incredible and over the top, but they were also a window into who he really was in ways that archival footage couldn't do or someone telling a story about his exploits couldn't do. 

He says in the film, there's Rick James, the character, and there is the other guy, the guy from Buffalo. I wanted to show the guy from Buffalo, who is a serious songwriter, but the guy from Buffalo is also friends with Rick James, who is an extreme, over-the-top rock star. There are expectations people have of rock stars. The guy from Buffalo understood that. So, when he created this other guy, he wanted this guy to live to those expectations. The film should also have a window into who that guy was, too. Some of it is extremely over the top and sensational, but according to those who were there, it's very real and that's who he was. I wanted to make sure there was balance, and it's not just sniffing cocaine on someone's desk and knocking shit over. He was a guy who didn't make it until his 30s as a musician. That wouldn't happen now. The fact that he stuck around for as long as he did was really impressive. 

He certainly helped musicians like Joanne "Jojo" McDuffie, lead singer of the Mary Jane Girls, and Teena Marie. Prince toured with James (and incurred his wrath in the process). I admire James for calling out MTV for not playing enough/any Black musicians. He certainly contributed to our culture. But I could argue that some of these efforts could be seen as self-serving or controlling. What are your thoughts about his contributions? 

Some of the greatest artists we've ever known, there is a level of selfishness you need to find that success. He wasn't afraid to be selfish, but seemingly most people that I interviewed will tell you he was selfish, will also tell you there's a flip side — he was very generous — in showing people the way, showing musicians how to write songs. Guys in the band will tell you that he knew how to play just enough to convey what he wanted, he wasn't a prolific musician per se, but in terms of being a conductor, and orchestrator, he knew what he wanted and how to put all the pieces together. Sometimes you have to be selfish and insist on what it is you want. If Rick James didn't insist on what he wanted, he would not have been Rick James. Somebody's got to wear the leather pants.

In this era of "cancel culture," what are your thoughts about how James was able to treat women the way he did and his machismo and bravado? They were, perhaps, a product of his upbringing — an animated scene in the film shows his introduction to sex — but as someone notes in the film, he probably could not have made those videos today. 

He was a man of his time. Elvis liked underage girls. Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin. There are all kinds of examples. Rock and rollers were not nice to women or young ladies. Rick James was a man of his time. How do you look at 1981 Rick James with 2021 glasses? I think that's a personal decision in how you want to feel about him. People won't listen to Michael Jackson because of things that have been alleged about him, but there are plenty of people who won't let go of Michel Jackson in spite of what he may have been accused of. Do I think Rick James could do in 2021 what he did in 1981? No. But there are also plenty of artists today making misogynistic music that isn't nice to women, or that exploits women. While some things have changed and people are very vocal about how culture and art reflect women, there is still a lot of that stuff going on today.

As James faded out of the spotlight, he became a bit of a caricature later but also benefitted from "U Can't Touch This" and the "Chapelle's Show" catchphrase (even reclaiming that). What are your thoughts on his late career experiences, where he tried to recapture the spotlight? I applaud his reinvention.

At that point, he'd been in the business for so many years, he had already beaten all the odds. He was so used to the adulation, it got him high, naturally, and he wasn't afraid to chase that high. He also had a lifestyle that he wanted to maintain coming out of prison, so in order to make money, people have to care about what you think or have to say, and his bad boy image was brought to the fore by Charlie Murphy, Eddie Murphy's brother, who brought these legendary stories about his experiences with Rick James to the public years and years later. It was thoroughly entertaining, and the fact that Rick was a part of the storytelling just made it authentic. It made folks feel like, this guy is on board with this, and he's owning his persona, and personality. Love him or hate him, people respected that he was part of the story and laughing along with it. That endeared him to a new generation of folks who probably didn't know who he was. He had another life when Hammer sampled him. He supposedly might have made more money from the Hammer song than from the original song. He's had lifelines in ways a lot of other people would never have had a second or third shot. There is something to be said about his persona. I think that's what makes him contemporary. I won't be the old guy who says new music isn't as good, but I will say it feels like your total package and what you represent in your lifestyle and attitude is very important these days. Plenty of younger artists who are inspired by Rick James — the way he dressed, and carried himself, and conducted himself, his honesty, sometimes his brutal honesty, all of these things today are things that people still admire. 

One comment that struck me was that during his funeral, many of James' friends spoke fondly of him, but during his downward spiral, they were not there for him. He struggled for years to get the help he needed but prison may have been the best thing for him. What are your thoughts about this?

That's the ups and downs of show business. When you're hot, people want to stand by the flames and when you're cold they want to put on really thick parkas and move out of the way. As his ex-wife said, he was in over 30 rehabs. He sincerely tried to get clean, but the longest he ever gone was two to three months. His ex-wife says drugs robbed him of his natural ability to enjoy laughter and happiness. Drugs can create the illusion of happiness, but once they wear off, the feeling of isolation and coldness and sadness is hard to shake. His senses became extremely dull, and he was living for the past in many ways, and a lot of people in his life had moved on from the glory days where he was burning up the charts and had lots of money. He didn't have lots of money and wasn't burning up the charts. Fairweather friends are always going to be fairweather friends, and he had more than a few as a celebrity.

Do you think "Bitchin'" is a cautionary tale, that we need to learn from this example, or that it is a story of promise wasted? I can see so many young musicians with the same ambition and frustration.

Rick James lived his dream. He fought hard for it. He was not an overnight success. He had a lot of test runs and trial runs, but they were all learnings. He is a perfect example of failure can also be a win. You don't look at your failures as a loss, but as a moment of learning. He was able to continue to strive, make his mistakes, and improve every time. Those improvements led to his success. In many ways, the Rick James story is a story of great success, and a dream come true. Unfortunately, the flame burned out too quickly and he couldn't turn it back on again. He is famous and infamous at the same time. What you want to focus on is an individual choice, but that staying power of his songs, and the influence he has had over the years, is undeniable.

"Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James" premieres Friday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.


Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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