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Super Fly (Soundtrack Sundays #7)

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Super Fly.jpg

I did think about going to see the remake of Super Fly last week before failing to muster up the necessary enthusiasm required to experience near inevitable disappointment.

Instead, I rewatched the original featuring a commanding performance by Ron O’Neal and gave the soundtrack album, my absolute favourite of the blaxploitation era, a spin.

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr in 1972, Super Fly was a low-budget production, incorporating many elements that might now see it classed as ‘guerrilla filmmaking’. Some scenes in public areas were shot without official permission, others were shot in the homes of friends, the same friends also being regularly called upon to provide their services as extras.

Rather than hiring and modifying any car into the kind of eye-catching pimpmobile becoming an evermore common sight at the time, a suitably slick customized Cadillac Eldorado was borrowed from a local mack, who was also given a role – he’s the flashy player in the white suit and red fedora. This is the car that we see Priest sharking around the scuzzy streets of Harlem in.

Sometimes the camerawork is a little shaky and out of focus but that only adds a further edgy flavour to shots of a city on the verge of economic collapse, which was witnessing an unparalleled rise in crime, with narcotics awash across neighbourhoods and a spiralling homicide rate.

Super Fly is now one of the most lauded blaxploitation movies and was an instant hit on release. Armond White, later a film critic for the NY Press, has recalled the impact on the audience when he first saw it in St. Louis, describing a crowd leaping out their seats, stomping their feet and clapping their hands, ‘It connected psychically with people,’ he said of the climax where Priest takes on some cops in a fight before issuing a warning that they will inevitably have to heed.

Not everyone was so pleased to see a big screen portrayal of a black man who is both a mack and drug lord even if he’s a highly charismatic mack and drug lord capable of getting one over on ‘the man’.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People deplored the depiction of a black criminal prepared to flood the streets of his community with drugs in order to make enough money to get out of his lifestyle.

Priest is certainly more anti-hero than hero. We’re hardly into the action before he’s beaten a man in front of a mother and her children and threatened Freddie, one of his men who owes him money, telling him he’ll put his wife out on ‘whore row’ if Freddie fails to deliver the cash before the night is out.

Curtis Mayfield himself saw the film more as an anti-drugs statement than pro and his eloquent lyrics throughout were pointedly critical of the macho Pusherman Priest and the businesses that he chose to make his living from.

Partly as a riposte to some of the criticism levelled at Super Fly’s perceived glorification of crime, O’Neal went on to direct and star in a sequel Superfly T.N.T in 1973, which found Priest in Italy and then a fictional African state, where he attempts to rise above his former life by helping the locals in their fight against colonial rule. It was a critical and commercial failure, though. This time round Osibisa supplied the soundtrack but it wasn’t a patch of Mayfield’s.

Curtis Mayfield -Super Fly

Super Fly was the third studio album by the man with arguably the most distinctive voice in soul Curtis Mayfield.

The music is staggeringly good with insistent beats, fantastic wah wah guitar and some incredibly inventive percussion. Best of all is Mayfield’s honeyed falsetto coo.

The team behind the film were so impressed that after the songs were delivered they decided that Curtis’ band, billed here as The Curtis Mayfield Experience, should be given the chance to perform a song Pusherman during the film, in a small club where Priest goes to visit an older pusher known as Scatter.

Released at a time when soul soundtracks were still in their relative infancy, the album even managed to outgross the movie. It spent four weeks as America’s #1 album, earned four Grammy nominations, and two singles, Freddie’s Dead and Super Fly, both cracked the top ten of the Billboard singles chart, each selling over a million copies.

Even the Super Fly logo used on film and album promotional material is thought to have been a huge influence on the ever growing army of graffiti artists marking the streets and subways of NYC with their tags.

Curtis – and I have only just discovered this – might have articulated some very positive, socially conscious messages in his lyrics but sadly he would appear to be guilty of failing to abide by these ideas in his private life.

According to Traveling Soul, the recent biography penned by his son Todd, Curtis was a deeply insecure man often guilty of abusive behaviour, an often neglectful father and uncompromising partner in love who expected others to bend to his will. It really is unsettling to read about ‘a trembling, frenzied scream that only came out in fights with women’ that he would adopt when his temper flared.

Even as Super Fly made its way up the charts, Todd claims to have been woken during the night as a fight erupted between his father and the woman Toni, who Curtis called his ‘spiritual wife’. ‘I walked out to find a policeman hulking in the doorway and Toni with a black eye. Dad never did these things in front of us [his children], but we’d see the aftermath.’

Mayfield also appears to have been something of a control freak. Just one example: for the recording of the soundtrack, he invited the Impressions’ longtime arranger, Johnny Pate, to help out. Pate felt he definitely merited at least a couple of writing credits but Mayfield flat-out refused to give him any songwriting acknowledgements. They would never again work together, which was a shame, Pate’s arrangements on Super Fly were truly top notch.

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A Pam Grier Double Bill (Foxy Brown & Jackie Brown)

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Foxy Brown & Jackie Brown.jpg

Pam Grier’s two big 1970s career highpoints were Coffy and Foxy Brown and it’s easy if you haven’t seen both movies in years to confuse them. Both are blaxploitation revenge fantasies. Both are directed by Jack Hill with the Grier characters kicking ass throughout as they take on local drug pushers, pimps and crime lords. In both Grier poses as a high-class hooker as part of her strategy to gain some serious payback against those who have wronged her and her community. In Coffy she hides razor blades in her afro and then a small gun in Foxy Brown. That’s right, a small gun.

Foxy Brown is now the better-known film, largely because of the iconic name and the whole Jackie Brown thang, Quentin Tarantino giving several nods to Foxy in his third feature film. Just look at the typeface on those records pictured above for starters.

Coffy likely edges it as the superior movie, but Foxy is a whole lot of fun, more cartoon-like and more outrageous with a great arch nemesis in Miss Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder), the unlikely head of the syndicate that controls the city’s drug trade.

It also has a much more dynamic opening credits sequence, blazing with pop art colours and accompanied by a track from under-rated Motown artist Willie Hutch. Here is Theme From Foxy Brown:

Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown still displays Tarantino’s effortless directorial pizzazz but this is a more nuanced and mature film than his previous high-octane trademark style might have led us to expect with only a fraction of the fireworks of Pulp Fiction.

Like that film, though, its dialogue flows like Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, an intricate plot requiring you to pay close attention – don’t even think about checking your phone until the end credits roll – and, the soundtrack is top-notch, albeit more subdued than had been the case in before on Planet Quentin with no totally unexpected, stop you in your tracks moment like Little Green Bag or Stuck in the Middle with You in Reservoir Dogs.

Instead we are treated to some high class soul and funk including Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack (borrowed from Barry Shear’s blaxploitation crime drama of the same name from 1972), The Johnson Brothers’ Strawberry Letter 23 and The Meters’ Cissy Strut, one of the finest songs to ever emerge from that great musical city New Orleans:

Like Tarantino’s previous work, Jackie Brown also boasts a fantastic ensemble cast.

Here Pam Grier is Jackie Brown rather than Foxy (although she is still plenty foxy in the looks department). She’s is in her mid-40s and works as a flight attendant for the Mexican equivalent of Easyjet. To supplement her meagre wages, she smuggles money from Mexico in to L.A. for gun-runner Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), a motormouth with a long ponytail and a little braided goatee, straight out of a Shaw Brothers’ chop socky flick. Ordell is equal parts charming and psychopathically ruthless.

Bridget Fonda plays his girlfriend Melanie, a full-time stoner, who, for a while at least, seems to enjoy hanging out with schubbly ex-con Louis (Robert De Niro), Ordell’s dim-witted but hot-tempered partner in crime.

Briefly we are even treated to three of my favourite actors sharing screentime together: Samuel L. Jackson. Robert De Niro and Pam Grier.

Anchoring the drama, though, is Robert Forster as world-weary bail bondsman Max Cherry, who develops a crush on Jackie (and a love of The Delfonics through her).

There’s one scene where he visits Jackie’s place and she sticks on a vinyl copy of The Delfonics’ self-titled third album, placing the needle on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time). Max doesn’t recognise the track and asks if she hasn’t got into ‘the whole CD revolution.’ Jackie replies she has a few: ‘But I can’t afford to start all over again. I got too much time and money invested in my records.’

Later Max buys a cassette copy of The Delfonics’ album in a store and their music seems to symbolize his growing fondness for Jackie. Strange to think that for a time around twenty years ago, cassette tapes had somehow seemed to have outlived vinyl.

Jackie Brown has been called the last great crime movie of the 1990s but just as memorable is the poignant (potential) relationship between two characters who have, between them, lived on the planet for the grand total of one hundred years.

The chemistry between Grier and Forster is remarkable and the fact that Grier’s biggest successes had come almost a quarter of a century beforehand, while Forster was still best known for his role in 1969’s Medium Cool provided further proof that early period Tarantino possessed an exquisite talent for the kind of imaginative casting capable of resurrecting careers.

From Philly, another fine music city, here are The Delfonics with the soft soul classic Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time):

For more on Quentin Tarantino: https://www.tarantino.info/

Soundtrack Sundays #1

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Roy Ayers: Coffy (1973)
Don Ellis & Julie Driscoll: Moon Zero Two (1969)

Before Hollywood began barfing out an endless stream of Fast and Furious Transformers, before streaming and DVDs, before even VHS and Betamax videos were an option for anybody but the rich, cinema going was a very different experience to what it is today.

In Britain, multiplexes didn’t yet exist. Cinema chains would not be given the same access to new releases ensuring film openings would be staggered. My local picture house was a Caledonian, which meant it would usually be showing a completely different set of new films to, say, Odeons or ABCs.

Coffy lobby card

Of course, this meant if you really wanted to see something that was just out you’d sometimes have to travel. I can remember, for example, getting a bus into the old Muirend ABC (known as the Toledo in its former heyday) to see Sheba Baby, a blaxploitation favourite starring Pam Grier. Memories of seeing Coffy are hazier but I think that I must have had to travel into Glasgow city centre for that one. And I vaguely remember it was part of a double bill, possibly with a kung fu flick.

Yes, back then, cinemas hadn’t got round to ripping off their customers at absolutely every available opportunity.

You could accuse Coffy of being formulaic and terribly dated. But it’s also utterly watchable and fantastic fun. Pam Grier is irresistable in the titular role. Few women have ever looked so foxy and been able to kick ass so effortlessly. ‘The baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!’ as the publicity insisted.

She certainly has the most dangerous Afro in movie history. If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

As with most blaxploitation movies, there’s a great soundtrack too. AllMusic claims it’s a ‘masterpiece on par with Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Isaac Hayes’ Shaft‘ which I reckon slightly exaggerates its value but vibraphone legend Roy Ayers does supply a steady stream of soul, jazz and funk grooves that complement the action very effectively. And that famous vibraphone of his does offer a very pleasing texture throughout.

Back then I doubt the score would have made much of an impression on me but all these years later I have to agree with Cullen Gallagher’s liner notes to the Arrow blu-ray re-release: ‘One can’t imagine watching Coffy without the music or listening to the album without seeing the film’s images in your head.’

Right on! This is Coffy is the Color:

Finally, a wee mention for drummer Dennis Davis, who provides the percussion here and would soon go on play with David Bowie and Iggy Pop on classic albums such as Station to Station, Low and The Idiot.

He was also sat behind his kit on many of Bowie’s live tours, including his final Reality Tour in 2003. Sadly, he died just a couple of months after Bowie, just over two years ago.

Moon Zero Two quad poster

Don Ellis & Julie Driscoll: Moon Zero Two (1969)

Hammer Films wasn’t all Count Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolves and creatures from the Black Lagoon.

Moon Zero Two attempted to exploit the success of sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the public obsession with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

If compared to Kubrick’s masterpiece, its psychedelic Pop Art vision of the future fails miserably. On the plus side is the booming John Barry-esque title track. Splendidly over the top and even slightly wonky in places – the music was apparently speeded up to better fit in with the animated opening credits sequence much to the annoyance of its composer, visionary Californian jazzer Don Ellis.

Julie Driscoll’s mesmerising, soul-searching vocals, though, save the day.

A cross between Twiggy and Aretha Franklin, psychedelic princess Julie will always be best remembered for This Wheel’s On Fire, a huge hippy era hit credited to Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and The Trinity, a name that didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

As for what turned out to be the final Hammer release of the 1960s, well, Moon Zero Two flopped and no soundtrack album has ever been released, helping to consign the title track to undeserved obscurity.

Here is Moon Zero Two:

For more on Roy Ayers: http://www.royayers.com/

For more on Julie Driscoll: http://www.mindyourownmusic.co.uk/julie-tippetts.htm