Two European filmmakers are in Birmingham, working on a documentary about jazz great and Alabama native Sun Ra.
Since arriving in early December, filmmakers Pablo Guarise and Guillaume Maupin have been doing research at the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) and other locations about the late jazz singer and composer born Herman “Sonny” Blount in Birmingham in 1914, who later adopted the name Sun Ra.
During the past two months, Guarise and Maupin have been talking with librarians at BPL and folks who knew Sun Ra, as well as local jazz experts.
The film, tentatively called “Magic City: Birmingham According to Sun Ra,” is expected to be released in early 2024. It will center on Sonny Blount ‘s youth in Birmingham before he moved to Chicago as a young musician, and his return to his hometown as famous musician Sun Ra in the late 1980s.
Blount studied piano as a teenager under legendary Birmingham teacher John “Fess” Whatley, a talented musician who had students go on to play for legendary artists such as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Blount graduated from A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, attended Alabama A&M University and performed in bands across the Southeast.
After moving to Chicago and changing his stage name to Sun Ra, he gained popularity as a musician playing in nightclubs. As described in Alabama NewsCenter in a recent series about Birmingham’s musical legacy, Ra became a poet, composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player widely regarded for his musical experimentation, “cosmic” philosophy, prolific output and theatrical stage performances. He led the “Arkestra,” an ensemble of ever-changing members. Performances included dancers and musicians dressed in futuristic costumes inspired by ancient Egypt and Space Age attire. He recorded more than 100 albums comprising more than 1,000 songs before moving back to Birmingham late in life. He died in 1993 at age 79.
This past weekend, the filmmakers invited locals who knew Sun Ra, and those who admired his music, to two gatherings in Birmingham. At East Village Arts, Sun Ra devotees on Jan. 29 saw a presentation about the film project, screenings of past projects by the filmmakers and a musical performance by Maupin. On Jan. 30, a free screening of Maupin’s first feature film, the 2014 “Water Music,” and short films directed by Guarise took place at Sidewalk Cinema in downtown Birmingham.
The two filmmakers plan to return to Birmingham later this year to finish their research. Filming will begin in spring 2023.
This article was originally posted in the Birmingham Public Library blog.