‘Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James’: Q&A with Director Sacha Jenkins & Producer Steve Rivo

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

As the 1980s loomed, Motown Records, once a pop music, culture-defining juggernaut, seemed to be on its last legs. Then, along came Rick James

Although James had spent almost two decades playing bass and writing songs for a host of bands that were well ahead of their time — rubbing elbows with The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills and numerous other top-tier artists along the way — it was at Motown that he helped define the 1980s and save the iconic label in the process.

James’ first single, “You and I,” from his 1978 debut album Come And Get It!, topped the R&B charts and reached the pop Top 40, and was followed by “Mary Jane,” but it was the million-selling Street Songs, from April 1981, which featured the hit “Super Freak,” that truly put James on the map.

The next decade was a roller coaster that saw James hit the top of the charts and tour the world as well as succumb to drug and alcohol addiction and wind up in jail. Eventually, James’ music became some of the most sampled ever, and he became a cultural touchstone yet again when comedian Dave Chappelle satirized the legendary excesses of the man who put the punk in funk.  

Below, director Sacha Jenkins and producer Steve Rivo discuss their new film Bitchin: The Sound and Fury of Rick James, now available to watch via Showtime, and their impressions of Rick James, his amazing, wild life, and how Bitchin got made. 

Rock Cellar: Rick James doesn’t seem like the obvious choice to receive feature-length documentary treatment in 2021, so how did this film get made?

Sacha Jenkins: Well, about four or five years ago, the estate reached out to me about potentially directing a film, and things were hot and heavy, and then things kind of just went away. And then it circled back around, years later, to Showtime, and Showtime are really big supporters of mine, and his daughter Ty is running the estate now, and we had a great conversation and that paved the way for where we are now. 

Rock Cellar: Of course, we all know the hits and the records we grew up with, but what was your relationship to Rick James’ music, to his history and his wild story? 

Sacha Jenkins: Well, I learned some years ago that he was in a band with Neil Young, and that’s all you needed to tell me, because Neil Young is one of my favorite artists of all time. And to imagine Neil Young and Rick James together … Wow. And then I learned that they’d met because Rick was in Canada going AWOL … It had all of the ingredients that would entice a guy like me, who likes a little of everything, who likes rock and roll, who is interested in films that involve Black people, that involves the struggles of being Black. And you know, ultimately, in many ways, whether he’s going AWOL in Canada or making music, Rick’s story is just another example of a Black artist trying to get free. So, all of those components I found to be titillating and exciting and I was not let down making this film.

Rock Cellar: As viewers, Rick James is reinventing himself constantly along the way, and we’re learning more about him along the way over the course of the film. So, the person you knew at the end of the project, I have to imagine, was very different than what you imagined at the beginning.

Steve Rivo: Yeah, a hundred percent. And especially for a white kid like me growing up in the suburbs, which I think was critical to my approach, working with Sacha, a Black filmmaker who was approaching it from a very different point of view. Together we had different views coming in, and I think, hopefully, we made a story that can appeal to everybody. Because Rick’s story really fed into basically 20th century music history, starting with the fifties with jazz, and then going into the sixties with folk and rock and then him being a Black guy who played with white artists in Canada, which, yeah, it’s a footnote, but to us was huge!

This is an authentic African American dude from Buffalo who’s playing with all these white artists that are trying to play rock and roots, and he’s right there with them in Canada. It’s incredible. And he’s an American across the border. So, I think that, at least what we were trying to show in the film is, that informed them as much as it informed him, but they all sort of blended together in terms of their experience. 

Rock Cellar: And he had a really colorful life up to The Mynah Birds. The origin story is not something most fans know about, and I learned a lot from this documentary, the perspective you brought to it was really interesting. Talk a little bit about digging into Rick James’ origin story and what you found most interesting and what surprised you. 

Sacha Jenkins: I’ve come to believe that there are no real genres when it comes to African American music, because it’s all a reflection of and a reaction to the environment. And each generation has a different manifestation of that reaction sonically, but it’s the same story over and over again. So, when you unpack Rick’s experiences in Buffalo, what Buffalo was like, and everyone’s telling you it’s a racist city, and how they were all struggling to get out of there, and that the one way to get out was the Vietnam War, you’re like, wow.

That was the only way out? Going to Vietnam? And so, Rick casually signs up, and had he just gone to his meetings, he wouldn’t have been violated, but then he didn’t go to the meetings, because he’s Rick James, and he’s not thinking seriously about it. His head is in the clouds, and he wants to be a musician. So, his only option is to go to Canada. And then, two seconds off the bus, someone’s calling him the n-word, and then these other white guys come over and defend him, and it’s the guys from the Hawks, who wind up playing with Dylan and becoming the Band, and he’s friends with Joni Mitchell.

I mean, he doesn’t go to the Manson party because his girlfriend has a headache. Like, who can say that? He’s like the Forrest Gump of American popular music.

Rock Cellar: The Zelig of funk, yeah.

Steve Rivo: Well, Sacha and I have been describing him as the Forrest Gump of music. He was there for so many of these different moments. If you look at his time in Toronto with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Stills and Nash and all those guys, and then in LA, after they move out there, they’re all famous in Laurel Canyon, and he’s sleeping on everybody’s couch. People told us they’d wake up in the morning and the 10 bucks that they’d left on the dresser was gone but they were like, “Oh, it’s just Rick. It’s cool.” He was that guy. But he was super charming and incredibly talented, and so he just kept pushing and pushing. His bands in the seventies were revelations, too.

As a casual fan I didn’t know Great White Cane. That was Rick’s band in ’74-75. And there’s actually about six or seven songs from their aborted first album that are on Spotify. They’re incredible! They’ve got big horn sections and it’s like Parliament Funkadelic or Sly Stone. And for him, that was a failed experiment, but he was building towards what he was going to become. But if you go back and you listen to those songs they’re amazing. So, he’s everywhere. He’s working with all these great session musicians and everybody that we talked to, everybody who was in the studio with him, everybody that played with him, was like, “This guy just had it. He was a genius.” There was no question about it. 

Rock Cellar: Yeah, I also really love how you dealt with the drug abuse and the other themes in his life; the overindulgence that is synonymous with Rick James. How, as a filmmaker and a storyteller — because I think your journalist’s eye was really important here — how did you approach that? And were there any constraints put on how the estate wanted you to portray the last 10 or 15 years? 

Sacha Jenkins: As a journalist, when I did the Wu-Tang project recently, I knew that one of the first questions I would get was, “Well, the guys in Wu-Tang are executive producers, what couldn’t you put in the film?” Well, I was lucky enough in that RZA trusted me, and most of the band didn’t see it until it premiered at Sundance. [Laughter.] And so, I had that same conversation with Ty, who’s Rick James’ daughter and the head of the estate.

I said, “Look. You gotta trust me and trust that, you know, your dad was no angel, but we can’t skirt around the obvious. It’s been reported that he did this and that. There are photographs. He went to prison. So, in order to do this story justice and to do your dad justice, you gotta let us tell the story.” And she had the faith and gave us the opportunity to do that. So, there were no real restraints. But I just wanted to make sure that I was fair to the guy. We live in this era of R Kelly and Me Too and people can say what they want about Rick James.

Rick James wasn’t the only one doing wild stuff with women. So, balance was important, and he was certainly flawed, and I think he knew that. But that’s the other thing: It’s not as though he denied that he was flawed. I think that he had a sense of humor about it. And I think that he felt trapped by some of the mistakes that he made and some of the demons that haunted him. I think that he was sophisticated enough to understand that, but was he strong enough to overcome these demons? That’s a whole other conversation.

Rock Cellar: As a fan, I felt I got a lot of information, and you dealt with everything frankly, yet I wasn’t offended by anything and it didn’t push my buttons in any way. How did you deal with that as a filmmaker, and tread that line finely? 

Steve Rivo: We struggled with it daily in the edit room. I mean, we all love Behind the Music. There’s no problem with Behind the Music. But how do you make a feature film about somebody like Rick that doesn’t feel like Behind the Music? That was really important to us. I’ve made a lot of episodic television also, and I understand the need for a formula, and I understand the need to crank stuff out, but we had time.

Showtime gave us a good budget. We wanted this to be the definitive biographical doc. Ty absolutely left us alone and let us tell the story in the way that we felt was important. I mean, we were going into some dark territory. But she also was very honest with the fact that Rick was very honest about his own difficulties. And he wrote two autobiographies. There’s one entire book that he wrote, and the other one with David Ritz, where it’s laid out. So, he, more than anybody, was honest about it and honest about his struggles and about his addiction and about his issues. For Sacha and I, it was about kind of putting the pieces together, and to figure out how the mathematical equation of his life leading up to these moments of both stardom and his downfall, and how that math kind of added up. And we just tried to present the pieces in a way that viewers can then say, “Okay, I kind of understand better now where he came from and what happened.” 

Rock Cellar: I think the other side of that is, you get the sense of this incredible vision that this guy had for where he wanted to go, and the paths that he was taking. He was inventing a genre, literally. He was staking out an image. Where do you think that drive or that consistency of vision comes from in somebody who, in these other ways, is undisciplined and chaotic? Because that road remains really clear for him. 

Sacha Jenkins: Well, if you look at him in a modern context, your average rapper will start at age 17, and, if they don’t make it, by 23 they’re working at Home Depot, they’re going to college and they’re figuring something else out to do. When you stop to consider Rick James didn’t make it until he was in his thirties, well, this is a man who was determined. He knew that his calling was music. And so, I find real inspiration in his drive and in his success, because you gotta be a real special person to go through all that he went through, so many different musical iterations, and refuse to be a bargain bin artist. I think that’s really inspirational.

Rock Cellar: I’ve got to ask, the Rick James and Prince relationship: Here are these funk/rock visionary figures; what was that tension about?

Sacha Jenkins: I think it’s simple: I think Rick sincerely was a fan and found a kindred spirit in Prince and thought he was a talented kid and said, “Hey kid, let’s tour. You can tour with me.” He was impressed by him. But he wasn’t impressed by Prince borrowing some of his call-and-response moves. When you’re the OG and the kid is going on before you and he’s borrowing so many moves, you know, you don’t want to hear that you’re an inspiration to this person. You feel like this person is trying to take food off the table.

So, I think the Prince/Rick James thing isn’t really that complicated. It’s like, they both respected each other. They both thought the other was talented. So Prince was probably like, “Yo, I’m the new man, I respect you but I’m going to do my own thing.” And Rick was probably like, “Yo, you’re the man and everything, but I’m the man, pay your respects.” It’s not like the time when Jay-Z maced R Kelly. I think it was a little more playful than that, and based on artistry and creativity.

Steve Rivo: You know, Mark Weiss describes Rick as the cross between David Lee Roth, Bret Michaels, and Vince Neil, before they were even around. That was how we saw him, you know, me and my friends, growing up. Because Black people didn’t really have any rock stars. There was Rick and there was Prince. I mean, he played Giants Stadium. This is at a time when it was just unheard of, because if you got to see Black acts, they were packaged with, like, six or seven others.

But Rick was playing Giants Stadium and the LA Coliseum. That’s been lost in history. Completely lost in history. He made forty million dollars in gross revenues for the Street Songs tour. I mean, that’s a lot of money in 1983. That’s a big, big tour. And he breaks in ’79, and when things start to kind of tumble and fall apart it’s ’85, ’86, ’87. So, that’s a short time that he was at the top. But there’s so much story that’s packed into those years, as we show in the film, and what happened after that. So, it was an epic. I’ve worked on a lot of different documentaries, and your film’s only as good as the subject. And this almost felt like it could be a series. 

Rock Cellar: I was really curious to see how you were going to handle the Dave Chappelle version of Rick James, because for a lot of the world, that’s how they think of James. That feels like it must have been complicated for Rick. What was your sense of how that played for him? 

Steve Rivo: That Chappelle moment, which really became a defining moment for Rick, and the way that people think about him, was really the starting point for us when we started making the film. I grew up in the eighties, and was a big rock and roll fan, so I knew who he was. But most people that you talk to, the first thing they think of is, “I’m Rick James, bitch,” and the Chappelle moment. So, first, that seems like an obstacle, right? We have to figure out how to make a film that gets beyond that; that goes deeper. But I’ve come to think of it, in talking about it recently, and now that we’re done with the film, that it actually became sort of an asset. Because actually, the story of his life and his career and his talent and his genius is so much deeper than that, and goes so much farther than that, that you actually are starting at a very low point and then you can build up from there, even though you’re going back in time. 

Sacha Jenkins: You know, based on all that I’ve learned, it was a mixed bag for Rick. I think that he was very happy to be back in the spotlight. And I think a big part of Rick James is humor. He naturally was a funny guy. So, it’s not something that was created that was totally opposite of who he really was. It was in line with who he was, and it put him back in the spotlight. And if that moment happened now, it would’ve broken the internet. Right? So that kind of moment makes him very contemporary for the now.

I think he appreciated being back in the mix, and he appreciated being recognized by a new generation of people who had no idea who he was. But I think he also wanted to be recognized and remembered as a really creative, artful musician who made hits and was respected. And I think that “I’m Rick James, bitch,” kind of takes some of the luster off of that. But, at the end of the day, all news is good news when you’re Rick James, and it put him back in the spotlight.

Rock Cellar: I really loved the documentary, and when I got to the end I wanted more. But I’ve got to ask, because I’ve worked on projects like this: When you finished, did it make you miss Rick James? He had to have become a huge part of your life over the course of making the film, so you must have felt a void. What is it about him that you carry with you, having now finished it and it’s going out into the world? 

Sacha Jenkins: I mean, when you work on these projects, and you learn all about the subject and they’re not here, it’s almost like you’re having a real-life moment with them where you walk away feeling like you know them. Now, I’ll never really know Rick James. I never met him. But I feel like now I can say that I know the guy fairly well. I’ve talked to a lot of people who really knew him, and I can conjure up my own image of what he was like. So that’s cool. It’s a cool feeling.

I’m not up at night saying, “I’m really missing you Rick,” but I’m up at night saying, “I have a new appreciation for your music, that your legacy is particularly complicated, especially in the times that we’re in, and you were a man of your time, and your music was a reflection of that. And you were an exceptional man of you time, and your music continues to inspire and move the dance floor.” So, it’s a real mixed bag, but it’s a really cool opportunity to get to tell these stories.

I’m just a guy from Queens, Astoria. Queens, you know? Who knew that I’d be able to have an opportunity to spend time with a guy from Buffalo? I feel lucky.

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