‘Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James’ Review: A Very Kinky Guy

The main title of this Sacha Jenkins-directed documentary derives from a sketch on Dave Chappelle’s still-mourned former show on Comedy Central. He regularly reenacted anecdotes told by the comic Charlie Murphy; in one of these, the funk renegade Rick James did some obscene blustering at a bar before announcing “I’m Rick James, bitch!” The sketch resulted in new visibility for James while also making him a cartoon.

But then again, James’s outlandishness constituted the through-line of his visible career. This film strives to make the case for James as a serious artist, a social commentator and funk innovator who never got his due.

To this end, the movie spends substantial time on James’s roots in Buffalo, N.Y. The contemporary rap artist Conway, also a Buffalo native, speaks of the miserable segregation of the city. James’s enlistment in the Navy in the early 1960s could be seen as a desperate bid to escape his origins. It was an unsatisfactory one. Going AWOL, he landed in Toronto and formed several musical alliances, among them an R&B inflected band with Neil Young that picked up many stylistic cues from the Rolling Stones. James was the lead singer and more than one interviewee from this time says he consciously imitated Mick Jagger.

The period in which James’s woodshedding and partying achieved détente led to “punk funk” hits in the late ’70s. One interviewee insists on a distinction between the frat appeal of “Super Freak” and the deeply felt anger of “Ghetto Life.” But James’s vices soon overwhelmed his art and destroyed his character. MC Hammer’s sampling of “Super Freak” in the early 90s led to a windfall for James, which in turn was vacuumed up by his appetites. Despite a stint in prison and various stabs at sobriety, he died in 2004, an active user.

The movie wants the viewer to believe that James didn’t have it easy — and he didn’t. But it can’t skate over the aberrant actions that led to his imprisonment. “Bitchin’” is fascinating and troubling viewing.

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. Watch on Showtime platforms.

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