Art Doc of the Week | Parliament Funkadelic: One Nation Under A Groove
“Funk is fun,” says the legendary George Clinton, right at the start of the 2005 documentary Parliament Funkadelic: One Nation Under A Groove. “It’s a state of mind. But it’s also all the ramifications of that state of mind. Once you do the best you can, funk it!”
Directed by Yvonne Smith, the hour-long Groove is upfront about its hagiography. It’s a feel-good film made to appeal to longtime fans while outlining the cultural contributions and political significance of George Clinton’s sprawling funk empire (the multiple bands he nurtured and artists he took under wing) for funk neophytes. Because the subject matter is both enthralling and underreported outside funk environs, the film is much more than a puff piece. It packs a lot of information and analysis into its brief running time. And it’s never ever dry.
An animated narrator whose sartorial style is a hard nod to the P-Funk aesthetic (and who mysteriously vanishes about half way through the film) kicks things off by narrating funk’s origin story from its humble beginnings in 1956 New Jersey, where George Clinton formed the Parliaments, a doo-wop group that would become the structural bones for his funk empire. Years of struggle went by as the group tried to find its style and sound (including a disastrous debut at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.) Film director and funk aficionado Reggie Hudlin makes the point that their efforts to conform to doo-wop parameters were doomed to fail because they were intrinsically left of center. That point was made at the volatile ‘60s came to an end, and Parliament – through trial & error, some happy career accidents, and doses of LSD – came upon the formula that would set them apart from every other pop, R&B, and rock band of the time. There’s great footage of them from 1969 performing their single “What is Soul?” (the definition they give is very, very funk) as they’re decked out in garb that shows their unique black twist on the hippie aesthetic. Matching suits and slick choreography have been thoroughly jettisoned.
Talking heads ranging from critics (writer Ricky Vincent) to hip-hop legends (Ice Cube; De La Soul; Digital Underground’s Shock G) to artist fans (Flea and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Rick James; Nona Hendryx) all chart the group’s sound, evolution and immeasurable influence, while band members (Bootsy Collins; Bernie Worrell) give the inside scoop on internal workings and self-analysis of their art. “‘Maggot Brain’ is a brother crying his soul out,” says the late Garry Shider, lead guitarist and vocalist, in describing one of the collective’s classic tracks. “[It’s] a state of mind.”
But what really holds it all together are the still extraordinary performance clips. Clinton & company were blending performance art, rock show theatrics, and Motown finesse, and then scaling it up to operatic proportions. There’s still nothing quite like their shows, which were about black liberation on every front – cultural, psychological, political, and sexual. And they show & prove their manifesto that funk is cerebral and spiritual (not cloying, corny New Age spiritualism,) libidinal and esoteric, philosophical and plainspoken. It’s about the most brilliant, improvised and tight musicianship put in the service of layered escapism, with a mandate to “free minds and asses.”