DVD-Review: Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980) - Mug-Shot Productions

by Mara Norman

“My story is not a part of history. My story is endless. I’m not a part of history, I’m more a part of mystery which is my story. . . some call me Mr. Ra, some call me Mr. Ry, you can call me Mr. Mystery.”  Sun Ra. 

This documentary has live performances with his Arkistra intersected with segments of Ra sharing some of his theories and insights. Aptly titled A Joyful Noise as I watched, listened and experienced Sun Ra in his complexity and cacophonous jams moving out into ecstatic fits of free jams, I was immersed in the music. I felt a joy washing over me. A joy that this man and his music existed and that there was a film crew to document the live performances. The sound and video quality is amazing with extras included of full audio of songs from the film. Colorful costumes are on display during a rooftop jam at the International House of Philadelphia where he sings his poetry and dances waving hands to sky and wind, calling out, “Calling Planet Earth” and “I am a Different Order of Being.” 

Live performances cut between Sun Ra speaking his truths with poetic riddles shot at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and short interviews with band members who are also house mates all living at his living/rehearsal space at 5625 Morten St. in Philadelphia. Sun Ra reminds us, “Music is a spiritual language that represents the people of earth.  Music is a universal language.” Stand-out performances include an impeccable blues piano solo by Ra at Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom and fantastic organ jams including a whirling dervish noise explosion. Later in the film he recalls a time when neighbors complained that the music from a rehearsal was too loud, he explained to the police, “it is not music, it is a joyful noise.” The live performances ground the film in a certain reality that is graspable through the structure of the music. More open than a traditional documentary, this offers an open experience of the man and his music side-by-side. At the end he reminds us, “They say history repeats itself, they say history repeats itself, they say history repeats itself, they say history repeats itself, repeats itself, but history is his story is not my story. What’s your story?”