Filmmakers Researching Project on Jazz Legend Sun Ra at BPL


French filmmakers Guillaume Maupin, left, and Pablo Guarise, in BPL's Southern History Department researching  Sun Ra, the late jazz musician from Birmingham . They hope to release the film in 2023.

A documentary is in the works about Birmingham's Sun Ra

Birmingham, Ala. - Two European filmmakers working on a documentary film about Birmingham native Sun Ra are hoping to meet this weekend with folks who knew the late great jazz legend. 

Since arriving in Birmingham in early December, filmmakers Pablo Guarise and Guillaume Maupin have been doing research at the Birmingham Public Library about the late jazz singer and composer  known as Sun Ra but born in Birmingham in 1914 as Herman “Sonny” Blount. 

Over the past two months, Pablo Guarise and Guillaume Maupin have been talking with librarians at BPL, folks who knew Sun Ra while he grew up in Ensley, as well as jazz experts in Birmingham. 

Their documentary film is tentatively called Magic City: Birmingham According to Sun Ra. The movie is expected to be released in early 2024. 

The documentary will be centered around 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 1980's. 

Sun Ra 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.  He graduated from A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham. Before changing his name to Sun Ra, Sonny Blount 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. Over his musical career, Sun Ra led bands and recorded over 100 albums until shortly before his death age 79 on May 30, 1993, in Birmingham. 

Pablo and Guillaume are inviting people who want to discuss Sun Ra for the documentary to meet them at two places this weekend:

 • Saturday January 29, 7:00 p.m. at East Village Arts, 7611 1st Avenue North, in Birmingham 

"Our friends at EVA (East Village Arts) invite us all for a 'Get together around the Sun Ra film project' gathering. We'll do a short presentation of the project,” Pablo Guarise said. “It will be an opportunity for some of you to reunite, and meet other people interested in Sun Ra and Birmingham music history. Guillaume (who is a musician) will give a concert for the occasion.” 

 • Sunday, January 30, 1:00 Sidewalk Film Cinema at the Pizitz Food Hall,1821 2nd Avenue North, Birmingham .  

There will be a screening of Pablo 's 20-minute short film "The Disappearance of Tom R.", and his film school final “Brave Marin,” a 3-minute short that was Pablo and Guillaume's first film together. 
The event will feature a 1:00 p.m. Sunday January 30 showing at Sidewalk of "Water Music", Guillaume's first film from 2014, a musical road movie shot across Europe during summer of 2011.

Pablo and Guillaume will remain in Birmingham until Friday, February 4, and plan to return in October 2022 to finish up their research. Filming of the documentary will begin in the spring of 2023.

Pablo and Guillaime researching in the Southern History Department.

About the filmmakers: 

Pablo Guarise was born in the suburb of Paris, France, in 1994. He studied filmmaking at INSAS in Brussels where he directed several short films, including "A Room in Poland," a fiction-documentary dealing with the question of imaginary spaces, and "The Disappearance of Tom R.," an investigation of a man who vanished suddenly in the region of Charleroi, Belgium, in 1997. 

Guillaume Maupin was born in 1979 in Royan, France. He is a touring musician who is a big fan of traditional music from all over the world, including American folk and jazz. He has been passionate about Sun Ra for more than 20 years. Since 2002, he has also been an active member of the Cinéma Nova in Brussels, a major venue for European alternative cinema. Guillaume has participated in the creation and programming of the Offscreen Festival since 2007.

 In 2014 he directed "Water Music," a collective feature film about a musical road trip through Europe. The film was shown followed by concerts nearly 30 times in festivals and cinemas around the world (including London, Newcastle, Hamburg, Berlin, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Brussels, Belgium.

Pablo and Guillaime holding Sun Ra books they read at BPL.

In a Q&A with the Birmingham Public Library, Pablo and Guillaume discussed the Magic City: Birmingham According to Sun Ra film project.

 BPL: What will this movie be about? 

Pablo & Guillaume: Together we will make a feature-length docu-fiction about the early years of jazzman Sun Ra in Birmingham. He was born in this city and left it in 1946 for Chicago. He lived there for 32 years under the name of Herman Blount, before he named himself Sun Ra. Sun Ra was a student at A.H Parker High school. 

We would love to pay homage to the city by showing it through his eyes, the magical aspects, the religious communities, the old buildings, the music scene, etc. We would film in Birmingham and use animation technics. 

Filmmakers desire to work with Parker High School students and staff on the Sun Ra project

The project would have a lot of meaning if we could work on it with some A.H Parker High School students and staff. This school was a huge part of his formation years, knowledge wise and musical wise. Through workshops, we would invite the students to create costumes, (re)discovering parts of town, in order to re-enact with them some of Sun Ra's life in a creative way. Working with the band and choir leaders would also be great. 

We think presenting Birmingham and its school system through the prism of this great jazz history would be fascinating for jazz, swing and Sun Ra fans all over the world, but also shine a light on a city not well known in Europe. 

BPL: What led you both get interested in doing a film project on Sun Ra?

 Pablo: Guillaume preaches the importance of Sun Ra to anyone who is ready to listen. An unstoppable enthusiast, he has long wanted to make a film about this jazzman. I (Pablo,) on the other hand, am fascinated by magical and mysterious stories where myth, facts and fiction are intertwined. Therefore, Sun Ra had everything to become my next fascination focus. I love to take the viewer on a journey to unusual cities thanks to fantastic narrators and delirious constructions. Our meeting sealed the desire to make a film about this unusual musician, and cultural figure of outmost importance in the decades to come.

 BPL: Describe what the Sun Ra research process was like here in Birmingham?

Pablo & Guillaume: We arrived in Birmingham on December 2 and will stay until February 4. We want to take our time to look for all the possible traces that the musician left in the city. We are looking for the books he read at the Masonic Lodge. We managed to locate the site of his house on 4th Street , now disappeared. We also visited Sun Ra’s grave in Elmwood Cemetery downtown. 

BPL: Why do a film on Sun Ra? 

Pablo & Guillaume: Sun Ra seems to us to be such an important artist that it is surprising that he is not highlighted everywhere in the city! This could a real pride for Birmingham! We would like the film to be an opportunity to help put Sun Ra more on the map, to create events around him and finally to make Birmingham appear as an important city in the history of Jazz – not just works by Sun Ra but also by the important number of excellent musicians who were trained here and then worked with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and others.

 For that, we are happy to have met so many great people who are doing many fascinating events, artworks, and other gatherings to acknowledge Sun Ra’s legacy. We're looking forward to meeting others who knew and loved Sun Ra this weekend (January 29-30). 

BPL: What is the next step in this film project? 

 Pablo & Guillaume: Once back from this research trip, we will finalize the script and we will apply for financial support in Belgium and in France. We hope to come back here and shoot the film in the spring of 2023.

BPL: How can those who love Sun Ra and jazz help?

Pablo: Please contact Guillaume via phone at (205) 789-3136, email or email me at People can contact us if they want to stay informed.

You can also learn more about Sun Ra by reading these articles below:

Sun Ra album cover from 1990