Ed Driscoll

SUPERFLY: Stayed up too late

SUPERFLY: Stayed up too late last night watching Superfly, which along with Shaft are the zenith of 1970s blaxploitation. Not coincidentally, Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, who was a brilliant still-photographer before becoming a film director, and Superfly by his eponoymously named son, who unfortunately, died in a plane crash in 1979.

Looking back on it thirty years on, Superfly’s photography is often crude, and the acting worse, although Ron O’Neal, Sheila Frazier and Julius Harris acquit themselves nicely. But Carl Lee, as O’Neal’s sidekick, seems to have only one facial expression, somewhere between worried and angry, permanently etched on his face throughout the entire film. The action sequences all too frequently consist of little more than men running down city streets.

What makes the film work is the screenplay, which moves along at a nice, and fairly logical clip (with an unexpected interlude for a still-photo montage, brilliantly shot by Gordon Parks Sr.), and…

Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack.

But of course: it’s truly the best part of the film. Clearly working on a limited budget, the filmmakers somehow were precient enough to spend this portion of their funds very, very wisely. Mayfield’s music is part Greek chorus, part counterpoint to the action on the film, some of the best music of the 1970s, and the only sense of morality in the film. I’d love to know at what point Mayfield discovered he would be writing music for a film glorifying drug dealers, and decided to insert his own morals into his lyrics. His music makes an otherwise forgettable movie electrifying. Shaft may have had the bigger budget, and was better directed, but Mayfield’s score, throughout the entire film, far surpasses Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack efforts in Shaft: only Hayes’ theme song can stand on equal footing with all of the music that Mayfield wrote, and Johnny Tate brilliantly arranged, for Superfly.

Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from Les Paul, it seems like a good chunk of Superfly’s audience “listened with their eyes”, and ignored Mayfield’s warnings: visually, Superfly is ground zero for “gangsta rap”: huge Cadillacs, even bigger lapels and Fedoras, black gangsters “with a plan to stick it to the man”, white policemen pushing drugs themselves (paging Maxine Waters!)–so much of rap culture begins here. (And I can’t help but wonder if O’Neal’s flowing locks were the inspiration for Al Sharpton’s impressively coiffed hair.)

Too bad they didn’t listen to the music–they might have learned something.

UPDATE: This review is now also on the Blogcritics site.