Rick James was always more complicated than he’s ever been given credit for. While he may have topped the charts with a boisterous mix of funk and disco, he was a rocker at heart. He was an outspoken critic of racism, but was also accused of misogyny and convicted of abusing women. With his long braided hair and flashy stage outfits that split the difference between Earth, Wind & Fire and Judas Priest, his outsize image made him prone to parody but his talents as a songwriter, performer and producer were as serious as a heart attack.
The new Showtime documentary Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James tries to unravel the alternate threads of the singer’s life and career. Directed by Sacha Jenkins, who also helmed 2019’s Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics And Men, it mixes old and new interviews and archival performance footage, creating a 3-dimensional portrait of James which explains his artistic importance without glossing over his personal failings.
Bitchin’ begins with daughter Ty James literally digging through the crates and unpacking her father’s personal effects from large wooden containers. There are photos of him with starlets and celebrities and furniture that looks opulent and uncomfortable. In contrast, James’ early life was anything but glamorous. Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in 1948, he grew up in Buffalo, New York, a hardscrabble and heavily segregated Rust Belt town. His mother ran numbers and he became her bag man at an early age. He recalls “whoopings” at home and says his first sexual encounter occurred with an older woman when he was still a child.
James talked about wanting to “be a star” so much his mother put him in therapy. Buffalo’s industrial fortunes faltered and James and his friends wanted out. The Navy offered the quickest route but he went AWOL and ended up in Toronto, Canada, where he played in bands, including the Mynah Birds with Neil Young. He adopted the name Rickie James Matthews and the group was briefly signed to Motown but their manager snitched on James after they fell out and he ended up in the brig.
After his discharge from Naval prison, James hung around Motown before heading to California where he unsuccessfully auditioned for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s rhythm section. Music industry players saw his potential but he lacked the right vehicle. Back in Buffalo in the mid ‘70s, James assembled the Stone City Band with the area’s top musicians and signed to Motown. James was a new type of artist for label, one who called his own shots and took no shit. His cutting edge mix of funk, disco and rock looked ahead to the 1980s and was an immediate hit even if he was no overnight sensation. “My ego was like, ‘Yeah, about time for this’,” says James.
1981’s Street Songs album made James a superstar. He began flexing his muscle as a producer, overseeing hits for Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, and Eddie Murphy. All the success, however, went to his head and his increasing addiction to cocaine in any and all forms made everything worse. He rightfully called out MTV over their refusal to air music videos by black artists and battled with his band and record label. By the time MC Hammer sampled James’ “Super Freak” on 1990’s “U Can’t Touch This,” his career was on life support and he was in the depths of crack hell.
In the early ‘90s, James and his teenage girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were arrested on two different occasions for assaulting women. The charges included kidnapping, torture, and sexual assault. While both incidents occurred while the victims were willingly partying with the couple, Jenkins shows photographs of their injuries, leaving little doubt that what occurred was horrific and non-consensual. While James and Hijazi try to justify what happened, Rick’s own brother says, “Any addict is capable of anything.” Hijazi would cop a plea for a four year sentence while James got 5 years in Folsom Prison and served over two.
James claimed he got sober in prison though Hijazi says it didn’t hold. In 2004, the Chappelle’s Show skit “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” turned “I’m Rick James bitch!” into a catchphrase. If it raised his public profile, it also made him the butt of the joke. James enjoyed the attention though and hit the road once more. He died from heart failure in August of that year at the age of 56. An autopsy revealed Xanax, Valium, Vicodin, cocaine, and methamphetamine in his bloodstream.
While Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James gives James the respect he deserves as an artist, it doesn’t overlook the unseemly aspects of his life, behavior and art. If Jenkins ultimately lets the viewer decide what they think about James, he also makes no excuses for any of it. Over the course of almost two hours we are treated to one incredible story after another, not all of them pleasant or funny. Perhaps Tanya Hijazi sums up James best when she says, “He was a real motherfucker.”
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.
Where to watch Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James