Goodness. I am reviving the “Cult Movie of the Week” category for a minute based strictly on this film. I am also seeking out the book it’s based on, as well as the soundtrack. I was sucker-punched by Herbie Hancock’s future funk interpretation of a Spy/Espionage movie score. I was in love when I heard the cut that featured a bass guitar overdubbed in reverse!!!
The Chicago roots of the film run deep: from the setting (Chicago) to where the movie was shot (Gary, IN with a smattering of Chicago shots in the stew). They roots extend to the man behind the soundtrack (Hancock was born and raised in Chicago) and to the author (Sam Greenlee still lives on Chicago’s South Side).
Author Sam Greenlee’s novel (that the film is based on) was originally published in 1969. Based on the premise of a Social Worker turned lone Black CIA agent who goes rogue and ultimately trains a Chicago street gang to be an elite squad of guerrilla warriors dead-set on fighting for a Black Revolutionary War in America, the novel was difficult to get published in the mainstream press. So it’s no wonder that (according to Greenlee) although the film was shot locally, the City of Chicago did not okay it, so shots of the 63rd Street El had to be commandeered. Most everything else was shot across the Lake in Gary, Indiana (the city’s first Black Mayor was in office at the time).
The movie was directed by Ivan Dixon who, to me, is best known as the sigh-inducing male lead in the righteous 1964 movie “Nothing But a Man”. He also guest starred in two episodes of the original “Twilight Zone” that are both worth seeking out.
“Shortly after it opened in theaters, the film vanished altogether — pulled by its distributor, some allege, bowing to pressure from the FBI. The narrative, about disciplined efforts to take down The Man through brain power and armed revolts, was intentionally controversial, and it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to presume the film made those in certain corridors of power nervous enough to “disappear” the movie altogether.
For years it was only available on bootleg video. In 2004, the actor Tim Reid tracked down a remaining negative stored in a vault under a different name (“When they want to lose something, they lose it,” Reid told the Tribune at the time) and released it on DVD. It still remains largely unknown to the general public, an artifact from the blaxploitation era that defies most of the genre’s cliches.”
I love a good conspiracy theory every now and again. Jive on!
A work of Japanese Noir from iconic Japanese director Kurosawa, “Stray Dog” (1949) gets by on good looks, swagger, and heart. Featuring a slinking pace, the film’s cadence is ultimately trumped by its ability to be beautifully gritty and enveloping, just like summer.
Set in the depths of summer in Post-World War II Tokyo, the film follows detective Murakami as he seeks to recover his stolen gun (pickpocketed on a swelteringly hot bus). What he finds is himself slipping deeper and deeper into the world of the desperate kid, the Stray Dog, who committed the crime. The world of Stray Dog is a world of desperation and ruin, a world ravished by bombs and economic turmoil. Post War Japan is also a world in the midst of social upheaval: a world of seersucker suits and silk kimonos, with the ways of the West ever encroaching on Japanese tradition. This is the perfect movie for a quiet summer night in which thunder rings out ominously… the sort of night in which we pray for rain to release us from oppressive heat. But, don’t forget the Tempura & Sweet Tea (trust me on that one).
Movie trailer for the 1973 black documentary, Wattstax. Perhaps the closet thing to “BLACKstock” we’ll ever see. Great performances from Memphis’ Stax Recording artists of the time and an indelible message of unity, self-determination, and respect (and fly fashion).
I can’t be 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure that the chemical pink ensemble (complete with white, patent-leather, knee-high platform boots) that Rufus Thomas (best known for “Do the Funky Chicken“) wears on stage in Wattstax is the same outfit he sports in a Schlitz Malt Liquor commercial from that era. But then again, they were living pretty high at Stax in those days. He could’ve had two suits… or was he wearing a hot pink cape? Hmmm…..
Not unlike many movies that are labeled as “Blaxploitation”, the soundtrack to Sparkle (1976) is often regarded more highly than the film itself. A Curtis Mayfield-produced gem sung by Aretha Franklin, the soundtrack to the movie is glorious… but laden with its share of controversy. What’s controversial?
First, the film is a pre-Dreamgirls rags-to-riches story of three girls with dreams of stardom. Each of the main actresses (Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, and Dwan Smith) could all sing well enough to not be dubbed out of the movie; but apparently Warner Bros. thought not well enough to sell REAL LIFE records. Sort of ironic. Notably, in the movie, the somewhat unpolished vocals work well (after all, the singers were supposed to be kids coming up from the streets).
Back to the rags-to-riches story. So there’s the three girls. Enter stage left the young well-meaning Svengali producer character (played by Phillip Michael Thomas) whose dreams ride heavily on their success. Ultimately, a slippery force named Satin cracks the glossy veneer of Sister (the sophisticated lead vocalist played by McKee), and it seems all their dreams are derailed. Sparkle (Irene Cara) is forced to take over the Lead Vocalist’s role, rising from the ashes. A Star is Born, and Phillip Michael Thomas (as Stix) is willing to gamble everything to see their dreams come true.
What I like most about this movie is the locomotive power of their dreams, and the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the tale.
Who doesn’t love a righteous dream, bigger than the span of your arms?
NOTE: Curtis Mayfield (who composed the music for the movie) came up in the Cabrini Green housing projects here in Chicago and had a rags-to-riches story of his own to tell, although the projects were a far different place in those days.
Wilbur White was a nightclub singer on the South Side of Chicago whose bluesy growl wielded so much power that he was nicknamed Hi-Fi. He’d been in the clubs since the 1950s, and although I hear he put on a knockout of a show, that never translated into record sales. Speaking of knockouts, he played bit roles on Sanford & Son and in the boxing-in-prison movie Penitentiary (1979). In the film, he was cast as the gap-toothed transvestite Sweet Pea. Behind the scenes, the film was so under-budget that White took initiative and collected food stamps from cast and crew, becoming the production’s official caterer. He fed over one hundred actors and technical staffers for the final week of shooting. That’s good ol’ Chicago can-do!
here’s a clip of perhaps his signature number, Bulldog.
and here’s the trailer for the film:
NOTE: view the comments on this post for first hand stories and recollections…
Coke bottles clanging together, the sound ringing down a dark, wet alley. A voice calls out menacingly:
“Warriors…. Come out and Play-yay…..”
The Warriors (1979) is many things. It is a classical Epic tale (like Homer’s Odyssey). It is a pulpy cult classic with a look all its own (co-starring the New York Transit System and a bunch of dudes on rollerskates). It is a gangland movie. It is a spectacle.
Picture New York in the Late 1970s, poster child of ‘urban decay’. Now picture a late night meeting of every Gangmember from all five boroughs. In that meeting, a gangland kingpin named Cyrus (attempting to unite the Gangs of New York into one indomitable threat), is assassinated by an unknown assailant. Somehow, one member of the Warriors is fingered. Suddenly, the hunt is on to wipe them off the map, and their struggle becomes making it to their home turf (Coney Island) by daybreak. This becomes horribly difficult as night progresses, and gangs come out of the woodwork to avenge the death of Cyrus. Super-fun, no wonder it was made into a video game. Each gang rumble plays out like a “level”. In the final scene, with Coney Island Beach as a backdrop, everything comes to a head.
NOTE:In real life, Coney Island (gritty neon playground of New York [and homebase of the Warriors]) has had its future in jeopardy. Mayor Bloomberg plans to destroy what is there and create a squeaky-clean remake of the island a’la the Times Square revamp. Click here to learn about the campaign to take the grit out of Coney Island (and the community-based backlash).
Another NOTE: You can catch “The Warriors” on the big screen March 6 & 7th (this Friday and Saturday) at the Music Box Theatre (3700 North on Southport, accessible via the CTA Brown Line) at Midnight.