The first place I had ever seen “The Magic Sun” was on an evening of 1960s underground music films at Tonic, an experimental music venue in New York City. Made to the music of jazz visionary Sun Ra, the worn-out 16mm print along with the crackle of the film projector made the film seem like even more of a relic from another era.
However, the new DVD release of the film under the Unheard Music Series imprint has been cleaned up quite a bit and feels almost timeless. Filmed in 1966 and directed by future minimalist composer Phill Niblock, “The Magic Sun” has a minimalistic quality of its own. A 16-minute, black-and-white film comprised of negative stock of Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra, the screen is dark for much of the time, with shots of the musicians and their instruments being the only source of light (symbolically). The length of each shot becomes shorter as the film progresses and the music becomes more chaotic.
Sun Ra, who was always on the fringe even when his music still had quite a bit in common with mainstream R&B and jazz, was experimenting heavily with delay and other sound effects at this point. While many of the later cinematic works about Sun Ra often became too involved with the theatrical elements of Sun Ra and His Arkestra, “The Magic City,” oddly enough, seems more straight-forward. For viewers eager to submerge themselves purely in Sun Ra’s music, “The Magic City” is unparalleled.
The bonus features are minimal, but there is an interesting narration in which Sun Ra explains his theories about his music and his band of “musical astronauts.” Whether from Saturn (as he claimed) or Alabama (as his birth certificate claimed), Sun Ra had a logic all his own, as such claims as that “USSR” actually stands for “U.S. Senior” demonstrate.