Deep Cuts: Sounding Out Blaxploitation
Some reading music: listen to this week’s special mix below. (See the full track listing.)
Come this March, Anthology Film Archives will round out the third trimester of its extensive American International Pictures series with a string of blaxploitation films representing most of its various sub-sub-genres short of kung fu, Western, pimp life, and slave uprising. Coffy, Blacula, Black Caesar, J.D.’s Revenge, and others will screen as part of the series, offering samples of the vigilante, vampire, gangster, and supernatural genera within the blaxploitation family, and nearly all of them feature exemplary original soundtracks.
Many blaxploitation OSTs broke into the mainstream with record sales surpassing the films, while others would jump into the fray decades later with commercial spots and reissue albums, occasionally prompted by Quentin Tarantino’s benevolent Midas touch. Four soundtracks in particular served as pillars of the genre, all of them composed by legendary recording artists with no prior soundtrack experience. I want to dig into these essential albums first (which include James Brown’s soundtrack to Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar, screening on March 11, 14, and 21) while next column will be devoted to some lesser-known albums and a few of the other AIP productions on schedule at Anthology. But first, respect is due to Melvin Van Peebles.
After Ossie Davis’s directorial debut Cotton Comes to Harlem (70) was a commercial success for United Artists, Van Peebles ushered in what would later come to be known as blaxploitation cinema with the groundbreaking, independently financed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (71). With a $50,000 interest-free boost from Bill Cosby, Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and scored Sweetback on a minimal budget, then promoted the film by carting the LP out to local radio stations and lobbying it, literally, at the two theaters that initially screened his film. Sweetback quickly became a huge hit and grossed millions of dollars. Huey P. Newton declared it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party.
Sweetback‘s recurring musical theme is both as homespun and inventive as the film itself, composed by Van Peebles and performed by the then-unknown band Earth, Wind & Fire. The grumbling bass line, junkyard percussion, and pokey keyboard chords of “Sweetback’s Theme” barrel into the soundtrack on the tail of a wailing police siren and continue to chase Sweetback throughout the film. The saxophone follows at an ambulatory pace, feeding an off-kilter melody into Van Peebles’ hypnotic piece of chamber-funk; it was unpolished and weirder than most contemporary soundtracks, but catchy enough to gain consistent radio play. Following in the footsteps of Sweetback‘s success with black audiences, Shaft (71) burst onto the scene a few months later with a re-casted black lead and saved its studio (MGM) from financial ruin.
Stax, the record label that released Sweetback, also helmed the soundtrack for Shaft, which turned such a profit that it remains Isaac Hayes’ best-selling album to date. Hayes agreed to compose the score only if he could also audition for the title role, but when that opportunity never came to fruition, he upheld his end of the bargain regardless and, as such, won the 1972 Oscar for Best Original Song for his “Theme from Shaft.” He became the third black person in history to win an Academy Award, following Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier, and he lip-synced his way through a mindfuck of a performance at the awards ceremony, resplendently attired in a gold chain-mail vest.
In Isaac Julien’s 2002 documentary, Baadasssss Cinema, Quentin Tarantino drags Shaft‘s director Gordon Parks for “wasting” Hayes’ excellent theme with an uneventful opening sequence, contending with typical grace (and volume) that he would have done a much better job. While it is always a pleasure to listen to Tarantino talk about himself and his burden of remedying the mistakes of the directors who inspired him (like when he told reporters in 2009 that he was happy to use David Bowie’s “Cat People” in Inglourious Basterds after Paul Schrader wasted it in the closing credits of his film), he needn’t have insulted Parks, who did not direct (or mis-direct) the opening scene of Shaft with Hayes’ score at hand. As Rob Bowman describes in his excellent book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, it was in fact the other way around: MGM sent the opening scene of Richard Roundtree walking through Times Square to Hayes, who wrote and recorded the rhythm section for the theme (his very first soundtrack composition) right away. Julien’s documentary even includes footage of Gordon Parks and Hayes in the studio together, recording the music to the images.
The completed sequence is indeed a snooze, at whose “fault” is indeterminate, although there is something to be said for a warm-up opening to the first popular film to star a practically invincible black hero, in which the establishing images situate him—without condescension—as an everyday man trying to make a living in a crowded, multicultural city. The stinger comes later, after the exalting theme music fades out, and Shaft is unable to catch a cab because the drivers are passing him over for white fares.
Hayes structured the Shaft theme as a multilayered groove featuring a nervous hi-hat riff swiped from, of all songs, Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” recorded for Stax in 1966. (The riff plays very quietly and quickly during the final break in the song.) Hayes then tacked on a wah-wah guitar line originally intended for a different song and the iconic sex-jam rhyme section was complete. The entire composition, including a breezy flute and orchestral strings, is steeped in the musical vernacular of gauzy 1970s television themes, which must have helped the track achieve its high ranking on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart (#6 in 1971). Correspondingly, the call-and-response vocals elevating Shaft as a “bad mutha—shut your mouth!” are painfully corny. The Shaft theme is an effective earworm and remains a touchstone of orchestral funk, but as far as blaxploitation soundtracks go, it isn’t one of the best.
Super Fly (72) is directed by the son of Shaft‘s director, Gordon Parks Jr., with a soundtrack by former Impressions member Curtis Mayfield. Ron O’Neal plays an impeccably coiffed coke dealer, a character that pays convincing lip service to the perils of drug dealing, the oppressive cycle of police corruption in low-income neighborhoods, and the dearth of career options afforded to young black men, although the film’s good intentions are overshadowed by Priest’s charisma, style, and sex appeal. The clearest voice of reason infiltrates the soundtrack, which many have compared to an astute Greek chorus. Mayfield appears as himself in a memorable nightclub scene, singing “Pusherman” to an audience of implied dealers and users. His understated falsetto is both angelic and seductive, allowing his lyrics to creep across the packed room with a light-footed dissonance.
As a socially conscious concept album, Super Fly drew comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s seminal What’s Going On, released the previous year. Expectations for Gaye’s follow-up record were high, so that when he appeared to stray from his renowned lyrical commentary in favor of a predominantly instrumental soundtrack album for Ivan Dixon’s Trouble Man (72), his audience was not entirely receptive. The record sold well enough and received largely positive reviews, while the film was summarily dismissed as a blaxploitation bomb unworthy of Gaye’s superior and sophisticated soundtrack. The bar was raised after the grand successes of both the Shaft and Super Fly soundtracks, and emboldened music reviewers started to pan all blaxploitation cinema as crass genre material.
Gaye made a concerted effort to illuminate Dixon’s film with his music, stepping down his vocal tracks in favor of moody, jazz-influenced compositions punctuated with contemporary electronic flourishes—namely, Moog sounds, airtight loops of taped drum beats, and multi-tracked vocals—all of which would appear again on a later album, his epic and devastating Here, My Dear. Unlike the other musicians on this list, Gaye would never compose another soundtrack.
Next in line for a hit record was Larry Cohen’s blaxploitation gangster drama starring Fred Williamson, Black Caesar (73), scored by James Brown. The album was an easy sell. Hard funk dance tracks dominate Brown’s soundtrack and help escort the story along a clumsy narrative. The two singles, “Down and Out in New York City” and “The Boss,” are both heavy-hitters with infectious bass lines and drum beats that slam hard on-the-one. In Shaft, Isaac Hayes’ speedy hi-hat groove helped navigate Richard Roundtree through crowded streets, while Curtis Mayfield’s borderline-beatnik hand drumming accentuated Ron O’Neal’s confident roll through Harlem. Drumbeats often dictate our perception of movement in film, and Jabo Starks’ drumming on Black Caesar manifests itself in Fred Williamson’s straight-backed strut through the neighborhood, shaking hands and patting toddler’s heads.
According to Larry Cohen, James Brown was difficult to work with because he would not compose to film cues and submitted songs that were often several minutes too long. Cohen covered for him, but Brown did the same thing with his soundtrack for Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (73), angering the producers who hired him. When it came time for Cohen to direct the sequel to Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem (73), Brown provided him with another soundtrack but the producers shot it down. Cohen worked with Edwin Starr instead while Brown released the aborted Hell Up in Harlem soundtrack on his own, under the title The Payback. AIP’s decision to can Brown’s score turned out to be a serious missed opportunity, as the appropriately titled Payback became James Brown’s best-selling album.
To provide a final example of how music can elevate cinema, Tarantino has proven himself to be the gift that keeps on giving. The notion that Jackie Brown (97) is his best-paced, most nuanced film has lately gained traction, and for good reason. With one leg grounded in Elmore Leonard’s source novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is less redolent of Tarantino’s authorial spray. Images of Pam Grier bookend the film, set to Bobby Womack’s sublime “Across 110th Street.” Taken from the 1972 blaxploitation film of the same name, the song helps Grier communicate her awesome dignity while Tarantino stays mercifully mum.
1. Joe Simon, “Theme From Cleopatra Jones” (Cleopatra Jones)
2. James Brown, “Down and Out in New York City” (Black Caesar)
3. Curtis Mayfield, “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” (Super Fly)
4. Melvin Van Peebles with Earth, Wind & Fire, “Sweetback’s Theme” (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song)
5. Marvin Gaye, “Trouble Man” (Trouble Man)
6. Isaac Hayes, “Theme From Shaft” (Shaft)
7. Carl Brandt, “The Wrecking Yard” (Cleopatra Jones)
8. Bobby Womack and Peace, “Across 110th Street” (Across 110th Street)
9. Curtis Mayfield, “No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)” (Super Fly)
10. Marvin Gaye, “‘T’ Plays It Cool” (Trouble Man)
11. Willie Hutch, “Mack’s Stroll / The Getaway (Chase Scene)” (The Mack)
12. James Brown, “Make It Good to Yourself” (Black Caesar)
13. Melvin Van Peebles with Earth, Wind & Fire, “Come on Feet” (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song)
14. Bobby Womack and Peace, “Across 110th Street Part II” (Across 110th Street)
Margaret Barton-Fumo is the author of a forthcoming book on Paul Verhoeven and a longtime contributor to FILM COMMENT.