Monday, February 18, 2008

Krush Grooving, Car Washing and Loosed Women

By Odienator

What do a Black remake of a foreign movie, a bio-pic based on Def Jam's Russell Simmons, the debut features of both a two time Oscar winning Black actor and the enemy of Snakes on a Plane, a Richard Pryor race car picture, episodes of Keri Russell's Felicity and the worst movie ever made about Beatles songs have in common? They were all directed by Michael Schultz.

Primarily a prolific TV director now, Schultz had a long history of directing features in the 70's and 80's. Movies kept showing up with his name on them, and while they weren't always good, many of them managed to have a long shelf life, if only on Black folks' shelves. Once again, I ask you to look over your DVD collection and your cinematic recollections. If you see Car Wash, Greased Lightning, Krush Groove or Which Way is Up, you're seeing Schultz's handiwork.

Schultz's choices are worth investigating because they are so varied. It's almost as if he were operating under the old studio system. He directed whatever they gave him to direct, whether it suited him or not. It also felt like he was the only Black director working regularly at the time. Before Spike and John started the Black New Wave, Schultz was floating in that same ocean on a surfboard by himself.

Schultz also did something that Lee and other Black directors like Bill Duke would eventually do: he directed a movie that wasn't focused on Black experiences. He may have been the first Black director handed a non-Black movie by Hollywood. Unfortunately for Schultz, it turned out to be the worst movie in his oeuvre, but I'm jumping ahead.

Schultz started out as a stage director for the Negro Ensemble Company in 1969. He received a Tony nomination for Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie, which featured Al Pacino, and also staged Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He later adapted that for television, which began his long-standing TV directing career. After this, he made his film debut in a film called Together for Days, unseen by me. It's an interracial romance drama that marked the movie debut of your favorite yeller and mine, Samuel L. Jackson.

Schultz's next feature was Honeybaby, Honeybaby, a movie that was later mismarketed on VHS as Blaxploitation. Starring Diana Sands and Calvin Lockhart, it was a failed assassination thriller notable only for the fact that it was an attempt at something other than what was Black and onscreen in 1974. The film seems strangely protracted, and the rumor is that it wasn't finished when they released it.

After directing episodes of The Rockford Files and Baretta, Schultz helmed what I'd consider his most memorable film, Cooley High. Writer Eric Monte (co-creator of Good Times) was commissioned to write a Black American Graffiti, and he and Schultz craft a sweet, funny and sad Chicago-set tribute to public high school. Glynn Turman (who was 30 at the time) plays high school senior, Preach, the class clown and a wannabe screenwriter based on the author. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs plays Cochise, the cool, smart, athletic guy of the bunch to whom everyone looks up; you know he's doomed. High is filled with Motown music and amusing vignettes (the scat-throwing monkeys always do me in), and its turn toward the tragic is genuinely affecting. Monte would spin this movie into the TV series, What's Happening for which, according to IMDb, Schultz would direct episodes. And lest we forget, the song It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday was introduced in this movie.

Our pal, Joel Schumacher, gave Schultz his next movie. On my old website, my review of Car Wash was one word: Corny. Car Wash certainly is, but there were a lot of other things I could have said about it. The wall to wall music that plays under the film influenced a lot of other movies like Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. Its day-in-the-life narration meanders realistically as we meet the oddball characters who populate the car wash. There's Huggy Bear as a drag queen, a guy with a construction paper pig on his head, George Carlin as a mad taxi driver, Franklin Ajaye as a smooth bruva who can't leave his damn afro alone, and numerous others who work at or visit the Car Wash. One guy goes through the car wash and manages to survive, something my car antenna and mirror didn't do the last time I drove through a car wash. Car Wash's DVD advertises Richard Pryor as a star. Don't be misled. Pryor is in the film for about 5 minutes, showing up with the Pointer Sisters. His part in Uptown Saturday Night is probably bigger.

The people who fared best in Car Wash are Rose Royce. The band created by Norman Whitfield doesn't appear in the film, but they sing three songs from the superb soundtrack: the titular hand-clapper, my favorite I Wanna Get Next to You, and the song Mary J. Blige remade into a raging hit, I'm Going Down. That last thing is the best thing Joel Schumacher has ever done. That's right folks: Joel Schumacher wrote the words to I'm Going Down.

Schultz worked with Richard Pryor on three other features. The two they collaborated on in 1977 could not be more different. First, Pryor starred in the comedy-drama Greased Lightning, a biopic about Wendell Scott, the first Black stock-car racing champion. Pryor co-stars with Pam Grier as his wife, Beau Bridges as a White driver who helps Pryor, and Cleavon Little as Pryor's pal. The casting of Little and Pryor is interesting: Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles and Little played the part Pryor was supposed to play before Warners refused to insure him. Lightning is a Warners release, which means they could insure Rich blowing up in a car, but not riding a horse in a Western.

Grier isn't given much to do, but there's genuine chemistry between her and Pryor. Pryor is excellent, proving that the man really could act when given material that required it. The next year, Pryor would give the greatest acting performance of his career in the dark, ruthlessly bitter auto worker drama, Blue Collar. Here, he's relaxed, funny, and completely convincing as a driver. The most memorable scene in Greased Lightning, which was co-written by Melvin Van Peebles, is a scene that pays homage to one of Richard Pryor's album titles. Pryor doesn't appear in this pre-credits scene, but his younger incarnation's daring during a bike race leads the White boy he's racing against to utter "that's one crazy nigger!"

Pryor's other 1977 feature with Schultz, Which Way Is Up?, finds him playing multiple roles 12 years before Eddie Murphy would do it in Coming to America. Pryor plays a Flip Wilson-ish preacher named Reverend Lenox Thomas (named after Pryor's middle names), Rufus Jones, a dirty old man, and Leroy Jones, Rufus' grandson who takes after grandpa in the dirty man department. We first meet Leroy in a raunchy sex scene. "Whisper sweet nothings into my ear," begs Leroy's woman. "Open your legs, bitch!" Leroy whispers. The movie doesn't get any cleaner, and its depiction of women is rather suspect. This is because Up is based on The Seduction of Mimi, a 1972 Italian movie made by one of my favorite directors, male chauvanist pig, Lina Wertmuller. (Wertmuller is a woman, by the way.) The plot follows Mimi in outline, and until Chris Rock's misguided Eric Rohmer remake, it was the only Black remake of a foreign classic.

How funny you find Which Way Is Up is contingent on how much you can tolerate misogyny and abuse of both sexes for laughs. I think the movie is hilarious, especially in the scene that taught 8-year old me about bondage and domination. (I saw this on a double feature with The Wiz!) Margaret Avery--Shug in the Color Purple--ties Leroy up and proceeds to whip his ass with a whip. Pryor's reaction to this is horrifying and hilarious, and I must give him credit for having the balls to depict what happens to him next. Avery shoves a vibrator where the sun don't shine. I still remember the noise it made as she swung it around: Veroooom-Veroooom-Veroooom!

Pryor's characters suffer numerous indignities in the film--one is run over after being chased by the women he's bedded (the coffin he's buried in is flat), another is sexually violated more than once (the last time is a direct lift from Mimi), tries to strangle a woman for laughs, and then winds up alone and rejected as the bouncy theme song plays over the credits. (Warning: DO NOT LISTEN to that song's lyrics. They'll make your eyes bleed. Just groove on Norman Whitfield's wah-wah music.) Pryor is wilder and more unhinged than we'd ever get to see him in a non-concert film, which is what makes Which Way Is Up? a must-see for fans. I'm sure a lot of us own a copy already.

After his Pryor movies, Robert Stigwood handed Schultz a Bee Gees movie called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like the similarly terrible and more recent Across the Universe, Sgt. Pepper's uses Beatles songs to tell its story. Pepper stars the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, two huge celebrities at the time who could sing but couldn't act to save their lives. The entire premise of the film is to use Beatles songs to tell the story of a band trying to save their hometown. A lot of people show up in Sgt. Pepper, and all of them leave this movie off their resume. It's easily one of the worst movies ever made.

Aerosmith shows up to sing, George Burns shows up to narrate and sing one of the few songs that are actually on the Sergeant Pepper album. (Most songs come from other albums like Abbey Road.) Steve Martin appears as serial killer Maxwell Edison, the character from the song that warned us how twee and annoying a band Wings would later turn out to be, Maxwell's Silver Hammer. And Billy Preston, who played on The Beatles' Get Back, shows up as, I kid you not, the original Magical Negro. Beatles producer/arranger George Martin had plenty to do with this movie, so we can't blame Beatles catalog co-owner Michael Jackson for selling these songs up the river. Sgt. Pepper should have ruined Schultz's directing career the way Can't Stop The Music ruined the quicker-picker-upper lady's directing career, but he somehow managed to keep on plugging away.

Scavenger Hunt, Schultz's next movie, was influenced by It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and served as an influence on the far more amusing Rat Race. Schultz directs one of those large cast of has been and b-movie actors made famous by 70's disaster movies. Vincent Price, Richard Benjamin, Ruth Gordon, Cleavon Little and James Coco join the titular event. I haven't seen this movie in ages, but I recall it being mildly amusing. I never liked Mad Mad World.

When Tom Joyner interviewed Denzel Washington recently, he asked him if he had seen Carbon Copy, his debut feature, since it came out. Denzel said no, but that "my kids have probably seen it." Carbon Copy tells the story of George Segal finding out that his bouts of Jungle Fever have resulted in a soon to be Oscar winning Black son. It's almost as bad as Heart Condition, the film Washington did where his ghost haunts racist Bob Hoskins because his heart has been transplanted into Hoskins' chest. Something about Washington and comedy just doesn't mix, though I found him endearing in The Preacher's Wife. Washington would pull his career up to the next level by appearing in A Soldier's Play (and the movie resulting from it) after this. Schultz would continue into the 80's making some critically panned movies audiences loved.

Teaming up with Motown, Schultz directed a kung-fu movie called Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon. Black Belt Jones it ain't. Its lead, Taimak, plays Bruce Leroy and, I'm sorry folks, but he's just too goofy looking to be effective. Sure, he's the Last Dragon, but without those special effects, Julius Carry's Sho'Nuff would have stomped a mudhole in his ass. You gotta love Sho'Nuff just for the way he looks and acts. "When I say Who's The Master, you say Sho'Nuff!" Try saying that to your woman in bed.

The special effects are hilariously bad, as is most of the music (some provided by former "Nasty Girl" Vanity, who is now so overJesused she can't see straight). The best thing about The Last Dragon is the dopey yet catchy DeBarge song Rhythm of the Night, written by Diane Warren, the same woman who wrote Milli Vanilli's Blame It On The Rain. I know this movie has its followers, and I admit it's at times compellingly watchable for its badness, but I just don't feel the love on it. At least Schultz added "karate flick musical" to his repertoire.

Schultz went back to the biopic well for Krush Groove, a fictionalized account of Russell Simmons' rise to the top of Def Jam. Simmons' stand in is played by Blair Underwood, who is far better looking that Simmons could ever be. Simmons' brother Joseph is played by...Simmons' brother Joseph, aka Run from Run-DMC. All the Def Jam folks have appearances: Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, and the Fat Boys. Playing the love interest is drummer and Prince protege Sheila E. Krush Groove follows all the standard biopic cliches, but it's still fun to watch as both a rap movie and an 80's time capsule. For his part, Run doesn't do a bad job acting opposite Underwood, and the soundtrack did produce a few memorable songs, most notably that Force MD's song.

As the song went: The Fat Boys are back, and you know they could never be wack. Schultz reteamed with the rappers of "In Jail" and "All You Can Eat," casting them opposite Oscar nominee and perennial 1930's movie best friend Ralph Bellamy in Disorderlies. This is a terrible movie, but God I love it. The Fat Boys are hired by Luke from General Hospital, Anthony Geary, to hasten the death of his rich uncle (Bellamy). Prince Markie Dee, The Human Beat Box and Kool Rock Ski are inept nursing home orderlies, but they're not so bad that they kill people. In fact, Bellamy starts to feel invigorated under their care. This causes Luke to become more conniving. It all ends happily, but most people would say it doesn't end soon enough. Still, I'll watch it whenever it comes on. Something about how they interact with Bellamy wins me over.

Schultz's last theatrical movie, Woman Thou Art Loosed, has a killer performance by Kimberly Elise that I'll talk about on the day I fawn all over Kimberly Elise. Stay tooned.

Michael Schultz continues to direct, mostly on TV. The range is amazing: Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Picket Fences, The O.C., Boston Public, Gilmore Girls, Brothers and Sisters, and most recently, Eli Stone. Just for his longevity and range of output, he deserves more credit than he's gotten over the years.

Your Homework Assignment:

Go rent Disorderlies. OK OK! Just kidding. Pick your fave Schultz film/tv show and watch it tonight.


Steven Boone said...

Great piece. I learned a lot.

I wonder how much of an influence Schultz has been to black craftsmen-entertainers like Tim Story, Charles Stone III, Malcolm Lee, Carl Franklin, George Tillman and Kevin Rodney Sullivan. With over 70 titles to his name, he's definitely in the old Ford/Hawks plowhorse mode.

Maybe somebody should do a book, an auteur reading of Schultz's work (TV included) to see what's underneath it all...? To paraphrase Reginald Lewis, why should white guys have all the auteur fun?

odienator said...

I'd write that book if I could finally get out of Schultz how he got started, and what he thinks of some of the films he's done. What was it like directing Richard Pryor? Did the Fat Boys cause the catering budget to explode? How did he get that Rockford Files gig? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anonymous said...

This is good material. I've been trying to find out more about "Cooley High". I haven't been able to find any interviews where Schultz talk about the creative process in making that film. Whenever I see the ending I wonder if they were purposely alluding to the ending of "The 400 Blows".

Anonymous said...

Michael Schultz does commentaries for both THE LAST DRAGON and KRUSH GROOVE. I've alsways felt like he was very underated too, because a lot of his work didn't fit into the blaxploitation catagory,for one thing. What I've always liked about his movies is that he tried to present realistic but positive movies about black people, and he tried not to rely too much on stereotypes when he could. Anyway, a big ups and major props for Mr. S, who retired from directing movies after LIVIN' LARGE (his last film).

Anonymous said...

There is a through and long interview in a chapter on Schultz in the book BLACK DIRECTORS---it's so worth reading.

odienator said...

Moratorium, thanks for the heads up on the Michael Schultz commentaries. I suppose I have to sit through The Last Dragon again so I can hear it, a small price to pay to hear Mr. Schultz's insights.

Though he retired from movies, he's still directing TV. I see his name on occasion in a variety of shows.

Jason said...

Thank you so much for this. I have felt for so long that Mr. Schultz is underrated as he has made some film's that are pivotal viewing experiences, in the black community especially.

One small quibble though: Norman Whitfield wrote the words to "I'm Going Down." So Joel Schumaker can't even get that haha. But at least he wrote the screenplay for Sparkle.