Wednesday, March 16, 2016

New Author-Curated Playlist

From 1972 to 1976, Hollywood made an unprecedented number of films targeted at black audiences, defining an era in cinema history known as blaxploitation. Author Keith Corson looks at the films made after this period and before Spike Lee's directorial debut in 1986 in his new book Trying to Get Over: African American Directors after Blaxploitation, 1977–1986. Although these films and their directors are the primary subject of the book, the music and larger pop cultural impact of this period has proven equally groundbreaking. Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Run-DMC, Chaka Khan, and more appear on film soundtracks in this overlooked era, so we asked Professor Corson (who used to work at a record store) to make a Spotify playlist and hip us to this period in pop music history. You can listen to the Spotify playlist here.
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Trying to Get Over: The Soundtrack
By Keith Corson

Books take on a life of their own between concept and realization. I started writing Trying to Get Over thinking that it was about cinema, but early on the boundaries of the project began to expand. The directors at the center of this study – Michael Schultz, Sidney Poitier, Fred Williamson, Jamaa Fanaka, Gilbert Moses, Stan Lathan, Richard Pryor, and Prince – all worked in various media outside of film, so I ended up thinking quite a bit about theater, television, literature, sports, and music as well. Popular music, and its intersections with the film work of these directors had the most resonance for me, and it became clear that in dealing with African American cinema in the years 1977–1986 I would also have to take on the changing musical landscape. Having spent years behind the counter of a record store, this wasn’t particularly bad news; I finally had a reason beyond workday banter to dig into pop music history. So, it only seems fitting that I compile a playlist for my book. The tracks below, as well as a few reflections and details that didn't make it into the final pages, provide a parallel narrative to Trying to Get Over. Enjoy!

Curtis Mayfield—“Superfly” This song was the inspiration for the title of my book. Mayfield’s soundtrack for Super Fly transformed the movie from mere Blaxploitation into something thoughtful and informed. It is the gold standard in writing songs for the cinema. 

G. C. Cameron—“It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” Boyz II Men’s version is what comes to mind for most people, but the song originally appeared sixteen years earlier in Michael Schultz’s Cooley High. This was one of the only songs written for the film; most of the music used in Cooley High came from the Motown catalog through a bargain licensing deal that would be unheard of today. Cameron’s vocal and the gospel arrangement give the song a sense of despair and personal loss wholly absent in the melismatic excess of the Boyz II Men version. However, the kids from Philly paid their respects by naming their debut album Cooleyhighharmony

Rose Royce—“I Wanna Get Next to You” The title track to Car Wash is great, as is every track Norman Whitfield composed for the film, but it is so omnipresent that I decided to choose something else for the playlist. “I Wanna Get Next to You” is at the center of one of the best scenes in the film and is the kind of song that makes you actually feel the longing expressed in the lyrics. 

The Beatles—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” The biggest downside to writing about the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that, in my head, I hear a broad swath of Beatles songs as they are performed in the movie. In the spirit of good will, I’m commemorating Michael Schultz’s film by choosing the actual Fab Four for this playlist, not Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. And don’t get me started on the ragtag chorus that sings the song at the end of the film. Ever wonder what Leif Garrett, Carol Channing, Wolfman Jack, Hank Williams Jr., Helen Reddy, and the members of Sha Na Na would sound like singing together? Me neither. 

Dwight David—“The Last Dragon” DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” was the big single from The Last Dragon, but I’ve always been partial to soundtrack songs that explicitly reference a film’s plot (often against my better judgment, e.g. Patti LaBelle’s “Just the Facts” from Dragnet). This song plays during the climactic showdown between Leroy and Sho-Nuff. A whole generation of kids had this song playing in their heads as they rushed outside after the movie and practiced their kung fu kicks in hopes that they could attain “The Glow.”

Fat Boys—“Fat Boys” The only non-comedic number performed by the Fat Boys in Krush Groove, this song is meant to represent the group finding itself stylistically within the film’s narrative. Although they’re often remembered as a novelty act that made rap palatable to preteen suburbanites, the Fat Boys had chops. Their first two albums on Sutra Records are fantastic and have been overshadowed by later misdeeds, such as rapping alongside the Beach Boys, Chubby Checker, and Freddie Krueger. 

Run-DMC—“King of Rock” The opening scene of Krush Groove shows Run-DMC in the recording studio laying down this track. Kurtis Blow calls out to the duo from the control booth, “I want rock and roll, baby!” The intersection between rap and rock has often been mischaracterized, as evidenced by the perception that the Aerosmith and Run-DMC collaboration “Walk This Way” was some radical act. (Even Kurtis Blow’s 1980 debut album features him covering Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” albeit with unintentionally comedic results.) But Run-DMC’s two previous albums have heavy doses of rock, often through the prominent guitar parts of Eddie Martinez. Their initial singles, “Rock Box” and “King of Rock,” aren’t subtle about the connection either. 

New Edition—“My Secret (Didja Gitit Yet?)” Another track from Krush Groove. The members of New Edition appear in all of their sequined glory winning a talent contest at the Disco Fever with this song. Tangentially, the music video for “My Secret” is hilarious. In the video, the New Edition gang attend a Lakers game where Coach Pat Riley calls a timeout and points to Ralph Tresvant in the stands. Ralph runs past security onto the court, gets a pass from Magic Johnson, and flies high above the rim for a game winning dunk. Was it all a dream or did it really happen? Only Ralph and Magic know for sure. One thing is for sure, though, nothing underscores the racial division of NBA fandom in the ‘80s quite like a group of kids from the projects in Roxbury being Lakers fans. 

Michael Jackson—“Another Part of Me” Having backed out of his starring role in Sidney Poitier’s Fast Forward shortly before production began, Michael Jackson aimed to realize his cinematic ambitions the following year with the Disneyland attraction Captain EO, which featured his first new solo music since Thriller. “Another Part of Me” plays as the credits roll, leaving the park guests to exit through the gift shop and buy their 3-D comic book and stuffed Hooter. 

James Brown—“The Boss” Fred “the Hammer” Williamson is the coolest man on the planet. If you don’t believe me just watch the montage sequence from Black Caesar as he strolls down 125th street to this song. 

Willie Colón and Rubén Blades—“Y Tu Abuela” Williamson directed The Last Fight in 1983. Produced by Fania Records co-founder Jerry Masucci, the film stars label mainstays Rubén Blades and Willie Colón, with a plot that mirrors their real life tension. Their work together on the soundtrack doesn’t come close to the heights of 1978’s Siembra, but it’s far from the failure Blades considered it to be in the immediate aftermath of its release. 

Earth, Wind & Fire—“Reasons” One of my favorite moments in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep shows Stan’s daughter sitting alone on the floor singing along to this record. It beautifully captures the feeling of isolation and how we use media for companionship. The little girl’s high-pitched failings are also relatable to anyone who has ever tried to match Philip Bailey’s heavenly falsetto while singing along to EWF in the car. 

Klique—“It’s Winning Time” Klique perform this song in Penitentiary II during a nightclub scene. The final days of disco in 1982 L.A. are perfectly captured here by Jamaa Fanaka, showing an American corollary to the resistant Soulboy culture in England that refused to conform to the racist and homophobic undercurrents of the “disco sucks” movement. 

Martha Reeves and the Sweet Things—“Willie D.” The score and songwriting responsibilities for Willie Dynamite had been given to jazz great J. J. Johnson, but director Gilbert Moses wrote all of the lyrics and worked with Johnson on the music for this opening credit song. 

Dee Dee Bridgewater—“Just Family” Moses and Bridgewater were married in 1977, a year before the release of her album Just Family. Moses was a co-writer on four songs, including the title track. Bridgewater appears on the album cover in silhouetted profile, showing their daughter China in utero

The Delfonics—“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” As a teenager in Philadelphia, Stan Lathan was in a doo-wop group called the Veltones. After high school he quit the group to attend Penn State, later becoming a director for TV, stage, and film. The Veltones, meanwhile, renamed themselves the Delfonics and the rest is history. 

Sammy Davis Jr.—“I’ve Gotta Be Me” Lathan’s documentary Save the Children captures an incredible array of musical performances from PUSH Expo ’72 in Chicago. The most gripping performance belongs to Sammy Davis Jr., who sings “I’ve Gotta Be Me” to a hostile crowd. He is seen as a sellout when he walks onto the stage, but the mood is reversed by the end of the song, with Davis giving a Black Power salute to a now cheering audience. 

Grandmaster Melle Mel—“Beat Street” Chris Rock’s film Top Five has a recurring theme of characters giving their personal lists of all-time greatest MCs. For me, that list starts by naming Melle Mel without a moment’s hesitation. Then I pause to think about the other four spots. Melle Mel is at the height of his powers here. If one song embodies the history and political thrust of the hip-hop movement it’s “Beat Street.” 

Richard Pryor—“Prison” From Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor reflects on shooting Stir Crazy on location at Arizona State Prison. 

Chaka Khan—“My Destiny” Playing over the opening credits of Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, “My Destiny” matches the odd optimism and moralizing of Pryor’s thinly veiled (auto)biopic. 

Sheila E.—“A Love Bizarre” Since Prince has pulled his albums from all streaming services aside from Tidal, I had to get creative to make sure he was included. This track, which is featured prominently in Krush Groove, is not just a Prince composition, but also features his vocal throughout. It seems like Sheila E. simply took Prince’s guide track and then added a meek vocal of her own in hopes of not messing up what she had been given.

Deep Cuts

Okay, some of these aren’t very deep cuts. They are, however, unavailable on Spotify at the moment. So, for anyone who is still dealing in physical copies, likes the musty smell of record stores, or enjoys being a junior detective online, I give you these tracks:

Robin Gibb—“Oh! Darling” One of the few musical highlights of Sgt. Pepper. Robin’s vibrato gets a chance to shine, which was rare for Bee Gees recordings in the late ‘70s. 

The Beastie Boys—“She’s On It” The pre-License to Ill Beasties perform this song at the talent show in Krush Groove to a seemingly unreceptive audience. 

Krush Groove All-Stars—“Krush Groovin’” This musical finale features the Fat Boys, Run-DMC, Sheila E., and Kurtis Blow each on a verse. Run-DMC’s part features Rick Rubin’s signature “reduced” production. More importantly, look closely at Rick behind the turntables in the film and you’ll see that he’s sporting a Hüsker Dü T-shirt. 

Mavis Staples—“Chocolate City” Curtis Mayfield was so prolific in the 1970s that he was writing entire soundtracks for films and giving them away to other performers. Gladys Knight & the Pips performed his songs for Claudine, Aretha Franklin recorded the album versions for Sparkle, and Mavis Staples sang the songs Mayfield had written for Sidney Poitier’s 1977 film A Piece of the Action. “Chocolate City” is the opening cut on the soundtrack album. 

The Living Daylights—“Mystery” One of my favorite movie tropes is the talent contest. Usually the dialogue or editing of the crowd's response has to tell the viewer what to think since the performance of the main character(s) isn’t clearly better than the competition. In the case of Fast Forward, the final song that we’re meant to root for is undeniably terrible, whereas the losing performance earlier in the night from the Living Daylights is catchy as can be. I don’t care what the movie wants us to believe, the Living Daylights were robbed at the Annual Shootout! 

Nancy Wilson—“I’ll Be a Song” Fred "The Hammer" Williamson had wanted to make a movie with jazz singer Nancy Wilson since the late ‘70s. Wilson was going to portray Dinah Washington and the Hammer would have played her husband, Dick “Night Train” Lane, in Blues for a Hundred Yards. The film never found financing, so Williamson cast Wilson in 1983’s The Big Score instead, where she sings “I’ll Be a Song” in a nightclub as the Hammer watches. 

Al Green—“Eli’s Game” Gilbert Moses was supposed to make his directorial debut in 1972 with a film called Eli’s Game, but Universal pulled the plug before shooting began. This meant that the title track that Al Green had already recorded was also abandoned. The song was finally released two decades later as a CD bonus track and on rarities collections. 

Bell and James—“The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” This song is the title track to Gilbert Moses’ ill-fated 1979 film. Producer Gary Stromberg had hoped to follow his previous success with Car Wash by again tying the film to music from a prominent producer/composer. This time he went with Thom Bell, one of the architects of the Philadelphia Sound. The track is performed by Bell’s nephew LeRoy and his bandmate Casey James. 

Prince—“Mountains” The final song in Under the Cherry Moon, “Mountains” is a beautiful blend of Prince’s romanticism and spirituality. The entire Parade album is amazing, but this is the track I most associate with the experience of watching the film. I went to see Prince play at Madison Square Garden during the writing of this chapter and that night he added “Mountains” to the set list. It seemed like he was speaking directly to me at that moment, telling me to help reclaim Under the Cherry Moon from its detractors.

Keith Corson holds a PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University and has taught courses in film and media studies at Rhodes College, Memphis College of Art, University of Memphis, and NYU.

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