Two things happened in 2004: the Chappelle’s Show introduced the “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories: Rick James” skit and, later that same year, the iconic singer-rabble rouser, which the parody was based on, passed away. The show had introduced the legendary bad boy’s life and legacy, through comedy, to an entirely new generation. Arguably that’s one of the reasons why so many more people are checking for Showtime’s recently released documentary, Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James.
Ty James, the eldest child and only daughter of Rick James who helms his estate, recounts that her dad “totally embraced” the Chappelle Show skit and its impact on his career. “It was like a jumpstart like you give a car.”
Also, the skit, she reveals, in which her father famously participated was an accurate reflection of his friendship with Eddie and Charlie Murphy. “That’s how they treated each other,” she says. “That’s the relationship they had.”
Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in 1948 in Buffalo, New York, Rick James was a true trailblazer who worked hard for his success. He earned his legendary status through perseverance and patience. It’s one of the many things Sacha Jenkins, the co-writer and director of the doc, admires about his subject. “His determination I think is really inspiring,” says Jenkins. “He didn’t make it until he was in his 30s.”
And when he finally did, he was so undeniably badass. Come Get It!, his debut album with his homegrown Stone City Band—released via Motown’s Gordy Records—went gold, a veritable milestone that was much harder to achieve back then. His forever classic “Mary Jane,” was on the album, plus other hits, including “Give It To Me Baby,” “Cold Blooded” and “Super Freak”(the sample forever immortalized in MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”) followed.
James also produced Teena Marie, with whom he was also romantically tied whose hit singles include the classics “Square Biz” and “Ooh La La,” which powered The Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” and the super girl group the Mary Jane Girls, whose hit “All Night Long” can be found in LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” and Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator.”
The documentary is about both James’ life and his legacy. To tell that story, Jenkins spent considerable time in Buffalo, retracing the singer’s childhood, which was marked by struggle, racism, and segregation. “Understanding Buffalo is understanding Rick,” asserts Jenkins. “Brothers were saying it was hard to get out of there. The one way they did get out was through Vietnam. Think about that: the military was a way out of the city when obviously the opportunity wasn’t there—so why not risk your life. And that’s how a lot of guys got out of Buffalo. So it was very important for [me for] people to understand that place to understand Rick.”
And realize just because James’ fight for freedom was not spent marching does not mean he failed to make significant contributions to the cause. Calling out MTV for their refusal to play videos by Black artists may have hurt the outspoken singer’s career but it was a boon to others, most notably Michael Jackson. In the doc, Ice Cube makes a crucial connection between James’ 1981 single, “Mr. Policeman” and N.W.A.’s iconic 1988 hit “F**k Tha Police.”
“When you hear him talk about “Mr. Policeman,” listening to that song as a kid and how he himself said that came years before “F The Police,” you realize that Rick was an influence in ways that no one knew. But the people who were influenced were very forth-telling. And so having Cube in the film at that moment was very powerful. [It] will have people thinking about Rick James in many different ways,” Jenkins says.
Bitchin’ absolutely does not shy away from James’s brazen lifestyle or his cocaine use, which was quite common for entertainers of his time, because that is certainly a well-known part of the Rick James legend that he, himself, never hid. “My dad, as a person, was very upfront and out on the forefront with his whole lifestyle. He is who he is. He never really tried to hide that,” shares his daughter Ty.
In that vein, the documentary delves into the struggles brought on by James’ debauchery lifestyle, most notably his 1990s trial and conviction for assault and drugs tied to one of his notorious parties. And, it touches on the riff between him and Prince, whom James’ essentially felt copied him. The documentary also details the remarkable way in which he regained contact with Ty and his son Rick James Jr. As fascinating as his life was, Ty shares that her favorite part of the documentary is the outtakes of her and her daughters “just laughing and reliving and reminiscing about their grandfather because it just shows that’s the kind of love he had. When people think about him, they typically don’t think of him as a family man.”
While Bitchin’ won’t change the overall portrait of Rick James as a “super freak,” it does make it hard to ignore his genius and his enormous contributions and innovation to music. One of his daughter’s biggest hopes for Bitchin’ is that it will “show that [her father’s life and legacy] was more than sex, drugs, and rock and roll and [it will] make people aware of his accomplishments and his contributions.”
For her, it is just as important “to bring awareness to all the things that he is responsible for in a positive light and not just the negativity.”
Catch the trailer to the doc below: