Poet, political activist, proto-rapper, stand-up, singer, musician and the original “bluesologist,” Gil-Scott Heron can be viewed in all his glory, an experimenter at his personal peak in 1983’s performance documentary/history lesson and travelogue, “Black Wax.”
Almost 40 years later, and it’s hard to think of a music doc that snaps, crackle and pops with the wit, warmth and musicality of this one.
The in-your-face poet of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” had hit the Reagan era with his passion intact, but his patter laid-back, his stage presence polished to perfection.
Gil Scott-Heron on the bank of the Potomac, checking out landmarks and walking “the real city” (“Tenth and Ave. V.”) with a boom box on his shoulder, singing his “Washington, D.C.” is about as cool as a performing artist doing performance art gets.
GSH was sort of Bob Marley and Richie Havens meet Dick Gregory and Frank Zappa. As he talks about history he walks down a line of wax figure representations of America’s presidents, historical and civil rights icons, critiquing many, and tells us a little of his biography.
He was born in Chicago to an opera singer mother and Jamaican soccer star dad, raised in Jackson, Tennessee by his grandmother, and heard his first Mississippi joke there.
“What has four ‘I’s” and will never see? Mississippi.”
He went to college, got into music and then poetry, moved into academia while in DC, and kept singing, reciting and playing.
The performance part of the film has college-professor caliber rapped/rattled off riffs about “Ray-Gun” (Reagan), whitewashed history, colonialism, his hit single “Johannesburg,” and “Here’s a look at the closing stocks — racism is up, human rights are down…” “Why wait till 1984? You can panic now…and avoid the rush.”
He snaps off his poems “HIStory” and the hilarious, satiric and biting “Whitey’s on the Moon,” much of this backed by a funky nine-piece band, with horns, providing “vibemosphere.”
“Times have changed, but very few folks in America have,” he laments, a phrase we’re hearing every day now. And “Every channel I stop on got a different cop on.”
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” may be his ticket to pop culture immortality. And when you look at what television is broadcasting that was recorded on eyewitness cell phones, it’s hard to argue with that thesis.
Scott-Heron died in 2011 and earned a posthumous Grammy the next year. In “Black Wax,” he was at his sharpest, a film that showcases timeless music and great poet at his most prophetic.
MPA Rating: unrated
Cast: Gil-Scott Heron
Credits: Directed by Robert Mugge, scripted by Gil-Scott Heron. A Film Movement Plus release.
Running time: 1:19