After years of trying to funk his way to stardom, Rick James finally broke through in 1978 on the back of a pair of dynamite singles: “You and I,” an eight-minute dance-floor workout that includes a lovely, soaring falsetto kiss-off (“they all can go to hell”), and “Mary Jane,” the most hummable ode to weed this side of D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar.”
The man behind “Mary Jane” and other urgent funk hits like “Give It To Me” is the subject of Bitchin: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, a new documentary that just premiered on Showtime. It incorporates interview and performance footage along with quotes and analysis from James’ family members, bandmates, ex-wives, a slew of other artists (from Ice Cube to Conway the Machine, Bootsy Collins to Nile Rodgers), and a host of critics. The film has a tough task: celebrating James’ work even as it reminds viewers that the singer was both a victim of abuse and an abuser himself. (James went to prison in the Nineties after he was found guilty of assaulting a woman.)
Bitchin is surprisingly heavy on explanation and talking heads — long on tell, short on show — and sometimes pedantic in a way that seems at odds with James’ party-starting music. The analysis can be frustrating; do we need the quote “Rick James’ grooves were groovier than most?” The rapper Big Daddy Kane shows up to claim that “James’ style of funk wasn’t like” other great groups that got their start in the 1970s, including the Gap Band, Con Funk Shun, and the Ohio Players.
This might lead to a fruitful discussion of distinctions within R&B, but he refuses to elaborate any further, leaving listeners wondering about potential differences, especially since acts like the Gap Band made ferocious funk records (“Early in the Morning,” “Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)”) as hard-bitten as anything James did. The film also includes strange animated sections to replace scenes for which there are no photographs or footage — the inclusion of a PG animated orgy scene is a head-scratcher.
Maybe the most telling analysis comes from one of James’ former video directors. “He wanted the fame, he knew how to get it,” she says. “But he didn’t know how to turn it off.” Here are 10 takeaways from the film.
1. As a child, James was musically omnivorous.
David Ritz, music’s go-to biographer, appears frequently throughout Bitchin. In Buffalo where James grew up, Ritz explains, he “absorbed” two different styles. “One was the music of Ray Charles and Bo Diddley and Little Richard,” all black musical pioneers whose hard-driving style and cross-genre interests were obvious precursors to James’ own hits. “But the other thing he discovered in Buffalo — because there was a club there called the Royal Arms that he went to — was jazz,” Ritz continues, an influence which fans of “Super Freak” and “Give It To Me” may not immediately detect in James’ work. “Rick was definitely a musical prodigy,” he says. “He talked about hearing Miles and Monk at a very early age in person and getting it.”
2. James was sexually abused as a teenager.
James had a fraught childhood: The singer saw his father beat his mother, and later helped his mother run numbers around Buffalo, according to Bitchin. In addition, James himself claims that he was sexually abused when he was 13. “When I was 13, there was this older woman, a friend of my mother’s [who] babysat me,” the singer recalls. “I remember laying on a bed, this older woman started touching me and doing these things, and it felt good to me. It didn’t go very far because my mother came home early.” James watched as his mother and the other woman started to brawl. “In those days, you didn’t call this bureau for sexually abused children,” James says. “If you caught something like that going down where I grew up, you beat the person down.”
3. The Band came to James’ rescue during a street fight in Toronto.
As the Vietnam War raged during the 1960s, James joined the Reserves in an attempt to avoid active duty. But he hated the army’s top-down structures and rigid discipline, so he went AWOL and headed to Toronto, where “there was a burgeoning folk, rock and roll scene.” “Here I am thinking white people are cool in Canada, and I get in this fucking fight,” James remembers. “Some guys came to my defense and beat [my assailants] up… they were in a band called the Hawks.” The Hawks would later become famous as The Band. “They took me under their wing,” James says.
4. James’ first bid for stardom was a failure.
James encountered a startling number of famous musicians before he ever had his first hit. In Toronto, he formed a band with Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, who would later play bass in Buffalo Springfield. “Neil was into really melodic, really pretty kind of chords,” James says. “And I would write R&B lyrics over those chords.” Rick “knew what he wanted to do and that got done that way,” adds Rickman Mason, another band member. “We basically followed his lead through tunes.”
As the Mynah Birds, James’ and Young’s group successfully auditioned for Motown and cut four songs. Recording in Detroit, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder both stopped by the studio. But the Mynah Birds’ manager “squealed” on James, revealing his draft-dodging status to the local authorities, and he was taken into custody by the Navy.
5. Parliament and Funkadelic freed James’ mind.
After his stint in naval custody, James eventually worked his way back to Motown to do session work. But “what I wanted to do, Motown was not doing,” he says. “I wanted to take what they were doing a step farther. I couldn’t do it there.”
On a trip home to Buffalo, he started hearing music from George Clinton’s groups Parliament and Funkadelic, who made a series of widely influential, relentlessly danceable, and nearly inimitable albums during the 1970s. “I was like, this is kind of like my concept, rock and funk,” James recalls. “I want to be nasty, I want to be raw. If I hit a bad chord, a bad note in my record, and it made sense, I would keep it. If I hit a bad note vocally and it had the magic, I’d keep it.”
6. Some of James’ most vital work was for other artists.
After James broke through as a solo act, he also worked as a writer and producer for Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, Eddie Murphy, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson, among others. James’ most important contributions to the funk canon came in the studio with Teena Marie — the epic ballad “Fire and Desire,” which Ice Cube calls “one of the most perfectly produced songs ever made” — and Mary Jane Girls: the much-sampled “All Night Long,” with its indelible bass line, and the chirpy, slamming “In My House.” “I knew I could write for girls, it’s easy for me to write for them,” James says in the film. “I’ve been such an asshole to them; I can kind of reverse it and know how they feel.”
He did well writing for other guys, too: Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” is as catchy as it is goofy, the type of chugging synth-pop hit that many Eighties groups would have cut off their left arm to record.
7. James’ biggest rival might have been Prince.
Prince opened for James early in his career, and the two stars ruthlessly tried to one-up each other. “Rick definitely had an attitude with Prince,” bassist Bootsy Collins says. “They just was competing with one another… I remember being on shows with Rick and Prince and they would pull plugs on each other, get ready to go to blows.” The documentary doesn’t spend too much time on the rivalry, which also spilled over into the press. “I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” James once told Rolling Stone. Teena Marie claimed that James stole Prince’s synths, used them for Street Songs, which became his most successful album, and then returned them to Prince with “with a thank-you card.”
8. James’ other Eighties rival was MTV.
When MTV started, it was infamous for only playing music by white rock acts. Even when James’ “Super Freak” became a huge hit, MTV would not put the video into rotation. James called out the station for its racist programming decisions. “MTV don’t play Rick James, they don’t play Michael Jackson, they don’t play the Commodores, they don’t play Earth, Wind, and Fire, they don’t play Stevie Wonder,” James said in an interview. “Why is that?” Later he added, “We are being sat in the back of the bus, television style. This isn’t the Wizard of Oz. There are black people here, and we make music.”
James’ music didn’t end up benefiting from his advocacy. But MTV eventually did start playing the music of Michael Jackson, supposedly after Jackson’s label boss, Walter Yetnikoff, threatened to pull all his artists’ videos from the station if it did not change its approach.
9. James could be as dangerous off-stage as he was dynamic onstage.
Bitchin has a tough time reconciling James’ musical genius with his ability to wreak havoc in his personal life, often waving in the direction of his personal behavior without delving into it too deeply. Band members claim they were paid next to nothing for their contributions to his performances — even as James was earning a million-dollar check every time he turned an album into Motown — but the subject is quickly dropped. James’ daughter says she would routinely stumble over naked women passed out on the floor of the singer’s house; later, he throws a candlestick at her and cuts her foot open, sending her to the hospital. The impacts of this traumatic behavior are mostly unexplored.
10. James was consumed by his drug addiction.
Bitchin is filled with tales of wild parties and drug-fueled orgies that last for days. “I think I snorted everything on God’s planet Earth,” one of James’ band members says. Many of the musicians interviewed say they were eventually able to leave the binges behind, but not Rick. James “was the only one who allowed that drug to take over,” one of his bandmates says, to the point where the singer later admits spending thousands of dollars a week on drugs.
In the 1990s, James’ addiction also led to charges for two separate incidents of assault; he later served time in prison, during which he claimed he wrote 400 songs. “I had that hunger again,” he said. “Plus I was going broke.”