The image of the hip black detective played by Richard Roundtree in Gordon Parks’s unforgettable 1971 film, Shaft, precursor to the “blaxploitation” film explosion of the 70s, is inseparable from the brilliant musical soundtrack composed for that movie by Isaac Hayes (“…Shaft is a bad muther—Shut your mouth!”). The music and film go together like Almodovar and cross-dressing, Scorsese and gangsters, Godard and jump cuts. Indeed there is a long, illustrious history of the powerful, compelling use of music in African American film, from Melvin Van Peebles’s recruitment of the young Earth, Wind & Fire for his trailblazing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) to Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and even farther back to the first African American “talkie” film, the stereotype laden musical Hearts in Dixie (1929). Peebles’s guerilla shooting of Sweetback was dramatized in his son Mario’s 2004 film Baadasssss!, highlighting the importance the development of music was to crafting the film.
Although many of the movies melding funk soundtracks to film during the golden age of 70s black cinema were produced independently (hence more freedom to use whatever off-the-wall music they chose), that expert meshing of music and film has been passed down to their contemporary studio filmmaking offspring. As creatively roped in as these heirs to black cinema may be by the studio system, the spirit lives on, especially as channeled through the use of hip-hop in movies. Some charge this usage often lacks the grace of 70s movie music, is at best irresponsible and at worst a form of modern minstrelsy—the same charges tossed about during the 70s film explosion. Regardless of one’s feelings about the merits of music in contemporary films, it is impossible not to recognize the importance the use of music has acquired, and the skill with which it is done. The aesthetic has been a constant characteristic of African American filmmaking through the ages.
1975’s Cooley High, a romantic tale about black youth on Chicago’s south side, made great use of 60s Motown classics by the likes of The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and The Four Tops. The music so helped build a sense of the era that it became a rich part of Cooley High’s tapestry. Across 110th Street, with a brilliant title song by Bobby Womack (re-used in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), is Cooley High’s stylistic antithesis—violent, brutal, displaying a rawness about its Harlem streets that Womack’s song crystallized perfectly. Avant-garde jazz pianist, bandleader, and spiritualist Sun Ra wrote the music for and starred in the 1974 Space is the Place, a low budget, far-out cinematic journey about Black Nationalism and “outer space.” Set in the ghettos of Oakland, Space is the Place, despite dubious renown as a camp classic, is noted for brilliant music and an ability to capture the temper of Sun Ra’s aura, his spirituality, and his fantastic band.
Isaac Hayes participated in the 1973 concert film Wattstax (re-released for television broadcast on POV this past September), the “black Woodstock” held at the Los Angeles Coliseum ostensibly organized for community awareness and “black togetherness.” The film featured brilliant live performances by Hayes, hot off his success with Shaft, the Staple Singers, Bar-Kays, Albert King, and a number of astonishing acts off the legendary Stax Records label. The film is punctuated by socially biting stand-up comic interludes by a young Richard Pryor and footage exploring the lives of souls throughout the streets of Watts. Wattstax is a wonderful chronicle of the era, linking music, community activism, and filmmaking.
Of course Hayes had already set the tone for great movie music with the brilliant score for Shaft, which not only sold millions of copies but also garnered Hayes an Academy Award to boot. Shaft set off dozens of imitators cinematically and musically (The Mack, 1973, Dolemite, 1974), the most successful of which, on many levels, is 1972’s Superfly. The soundtrack to that film, a heartfelt exploration of the drug and hustler world the film chronicled, was written and performed by R&B composer Curtis Mayfield at the peak of his skill. Superfly might well be the pinnacle of cinematic musical composition of the era. Songs from Superfly stormed over black radio the summer the film was released—“Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” “Pusherman,” and the title song weave stories of urban struggle, longing, and the reality of the streets. Built with haunting melodies, they are unforgettable. I remember watching Superfly for a third time when a youngster, and though I understood not one iota of what the lyrics meant, sang them passionately.
If Superfly was low art “blaxploitation” at its sexiest, there were plenty of “high art” alternatives from the era using music to powerful effect, too. Berry Gordy and Motown Records got into the high profile film business with movies starring Diana Ross. Lady Sings The Blues (1972) starred Ross as the embattled jazz singer Billie Holiday, Ross re-singing Holiday’s catalog of classics. Co-starring heartthrob Billy Dee Williams, the film scored Ross an Academy Award nomination. Before modern Hollywood had figured out how rich a character music could be in film, and how lucrative the pairing of the two, the black filmmaking world already had it going on.
Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier starred in a trio of films in the 1970s that successfully incorporated wildly popular music. The title song for Let’s Do It Again (1975), also composed by Mayfield, was as huge a hit for the Staple Singers and as cherished by black America as the film was celebrated. 1974’s Claudine, a refreshing family drama made amidst the era’s sea of coarse, clone-like action thrillers, starred Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones and told the story of a single mother struggling to raise six kids while romantically involved with a whimsical, complex garbage man who is not the children’s father. The songs performed by Gladys Knight & The Pips speak of the inner city’s lower classes struggling to survive amidst Sisyphean hurdles set before them. Car Wash (1976) featured another brilliant cameo by Richard Pryor (by then a star) and a funky title song full of hand claps and lyrics that half of Oakland, New York, and Chicago could recite on cue. The romantic ballad, “I Want To Get Next To You,” sung by funky crooners Rose Royce, was used to such heartfelt effect that it is still played at basement parties, family barbecues, and weddings to this day.
Indeed, many profess this golden age used music in ways that sets it apart from the present era of assembly line pop music attached to films arbitrarily. Today it is unthinkable for a movie to be made without all possible musical tangents exploited—soundtracks, music videos, jingle advertisements, sports tie-ins. The goal of budding R&B and rap stars is to get their music attached to a movie of some sort (if not star in the movie themselves). Former “gangsta” rapper Ice Cube has built a veritable empire uniting music and movies with his Friday and Barbershop franchises. Others, from Master P (I Got The Hook-Up), Beyoncé (Austin Powers in Goldmember), Snoop Dogg (Soul Plane), to Babyface (Soul Food) have built careers meshing music with film, and vice versa, with varying degrees of success. Although Cube’s Barbershop films surely evoke some of the intelligence, romance, and social awareness of its ’70s counterparts, many of today’s films lack a sense of musical integrity and cohesion with the films they are married to.
Not all have been throwaways unworthy of attention. The use of R&B sex symbol D’Angelo’s searing, DJ Premier produced “Devil’s Pie” seamed perfectly with Hype Williams’s New York street morality tale, Belly (1998), in ways that call to mind the cleverest, most melancholic gangster films of past decades. The soundtrack to 1994’s Above the Rim (starring Tupac Shakur) was deemed by VIBE magazine one of the greatest soundtrack albums in black movie history. Boasting hip-hop and R&B artists like 2Pac, Sisters With Voices, Snoop Dogg, and the mildly legendary Al B. Sure! and Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs,” it set a new standard for the pairing of pop music with the urban black drama. Although titles like “Big Pimpin’” and “Pour Out A Little Liquor” lack some of the grace of their 70s counterparts they undeniably capture a particular temper of the era, a feat African American filmmakers have excelled at.
Miles Davis composed a poignant, haunting score for the 1958 Louis Malle thriller, Elevator to the Gallows, crafted while he was passing through Paris and visiting the set of the film. Miles scored a number of films, as did James Brown to great success (Black Caesar (1973), Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973)). Marvin Gaye wrote the title track for the 1972 Robert Hooks-starring movie, Trouble Man, the song far outclassing the picture.
2002’s Brown Sugar, starring Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan, took the idea of merging movies and music to another level by basing its love story in the world of hip-hop magazines and record labels. The film’s opening is a two-minute documentary montage of hip-hop luminaries discussing their love for hip-hop and its history. Though some called Brown Sugar pandering, romantic slop, it possesses a likable charm. It’s hard to argue with a film centered around the hip-hop classic “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, and Dana Dane, and featuring plot twists relating to Common’s metaphorical love song “I Used To Love HER.” The Erykah Badu penned “Love Of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” boomed from car stereos the whole summer.
Brown Sugar is part of a recent tradition of movies based on hip-hop culture. The seminal Wild Style by Charlie Ahearn probably got it most right back in 1982. Starring graffiti artist Lee Quinones, impresario Fab 5 Freddy, with performances by legendary rappers the Treacherous Three, Busy Bee, and the Cold Crush Brothers, it is a landmark window into a musical universe unknown to mass American culture. It joins the 1929 film Hallelujah—with its racially charged first look into the musical world of Negro spirituals, folk songs, and the blues, as windows into African-American culture. Low budget and showing it at the seams, Wild Style was followed by a slew of imitators, some of which seem almost laughable in retrospect (Breakin’, 1984 and Rappin’, 1985). 1985’s Krush Groove, best known for starring Run-DMC, The Beastie Boys, a young LL Cool J, Sheila E., and a pre-L.A. Law Blair Underwood, is often credited as the film that brought the world of “rap music” to a wider audience, though both Beat Street (1984) and Breakin’ came before it.
Although contemporary films are chastised for lacking the depth and integrity of those from epochs past there have been some notable exceptions: Charles Stone III’s Drumline (2002), set in the world of collegiate marching bands at predominantly black colleges, is an exhilarating piece of moviemaking with thrilling musical sequences. Culturally rich and honest, it is filled with silly romances and issues relevant to the African American community. The wonderful Love and Basketball (2000) by Gina Prince-Bythewood joins the tradition of romantic comedies using benchmark soul classics, like Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” to instantly establish entry into a world recognizable to any generation of African American audiences.
Spike Lee has always made music an integral part of his films, setting 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues in the world of late-night jazz clubs, and semi-musical School Daze (1988) in the world of fraternities and “stepping” competitions at traditional black colleges. He has had his composer father, Bill Lee, and jazzman Terence Blanchard score a number of his films, and even enlisted Prince to write the songs for Girl 6 (1996). His films document the arc of 20th century urban black music from Duke Ellington to Public Enemy. A Spike Lee film without music as an integral part of its fabric is almost unthinkable, a lesson Lee learned from his cinematic forefathers.
From Oscar Micheaux’s Swing! (1938) to Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale (1995), African American filmmakers have inherently felt music and the moving image go hand in hand, and married the two to craft a spirit and mood audiences will identify with. In this they reach out to audiences in ways similar to the manner music is used in churches across America—preachers and choirs melding spoken word and spiritual music to uplift the congregation. Even comedians on the standup stage use music—Eddie Murphy actually sang, and Richard Pryor’s immersion in his delivery was simply musical. Long before Hollywood became obsessed with the mechanics of marrying music to film, black filmmakers had mastered this art of soul and cinema, and passed the knowledge on to their filmmaking offspring. Fans of the cinema can only hope that the lesson has been learned properly, and used wisely.