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‘Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James’ review: All’s fair in funk and war?

Fire and desire.

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James is an in depth look at the funk icon. While it is a typical rise and fall tale, it does so with foreshadowing not normally found in the genre. Along the way, there are bits of information only a James expert would know. 

The first part of the documentary hammers home the point that James wanted nothing more than to be a rock star. Music history is filled with icons that got their start in one band before moving on to stardom. James was an impatient young man with a goal. He regularly quit bands to move on to something he thought was better. 

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As his career takes off, Bitchin’ reveals how the drive was still there. He released seven albums in six years, for example. Included in this run were hits like “Superfreak” and “Mary Jane”. Footage and interviews underscore the drive he had. It is nice change of pace as most stories about the singer focus on the more flamboyant parts of his career and life.

This does not mean that the film ignores that side of James. In a neat bit of writing, there are hints throughout, Bitchin’ that give an idea to a darker side of the punk funk pioneer. No matter how much the viewer knows about the singer’s chaotic later life, there is a sense of dread and anticipation. 

And when the career of James begins to spiral, Bitchin’ is there to chronicle it all. The famous Dave Chapelle skit gave an idea of how hedonistic the Superfreak’s life was. As the documentary shows, sex and drugs were a bigger part of James’ life than those who were not there could have ever expected. 

This is also the part that is lacking. After a tremendous build to the issues James had in his personal life, everything is very rushed. This may be because Bitchin’ wanted to focus more on the musical contributions of the star versus the legal troubles he had in later years.

'Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James' review: All's fair in funk and war?

The problem is the last twenty minutes are mostly about these issues. The documentary may have been better served just hinting at the more destructive tendencies James had instead of speeding through them at the end. Even worse, some of the people interviewed seem to dismiss what James did. 

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James is an interesting look at an interesting man. The dangerous side to James is mixed in smartly with his musical acumen. Things run out of steam near the end when the film moves away from the music and is forced to tackle the run-ins James had with the law. (In general, director Sacha Jenkins approaches sex in a silly and flippant manner.) In the end, it does a great job of proving Rick James was more than just a catchphrase.

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James premieres on Showtime September 3

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