Thursday, June 27, 2013

Super Fly

Super Fly
seen @ Mid-Manhattan Library, New York NY

Honestly, I wasn't all that thrilled with Super Fly. It wasn't bad, at least not when compared to other blaxploitation films - and I did like the ending. But it's hard to relate to a drug dealer as a protagonist, y'know what I mean? Oh, I understand why Priest, the main character, does what he does, and I don't think the movie glamorizes drug use to the extent other, later movies do. I just prefer something like Shaft instead. So let's talk about the bigger reason this movie is remembered: the music.

In roaming through my father's record collection not long after he died, I was pleased to see, among other things, the Super Fly soundtrack on CD. He also had a Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions greatest hits collection, so I took both of them. They're both double-CD volumes; the Super Fly one (released by Rhino) has both the original soundtrack on one disc and a bunch of extras on the other.

Mayfield's nine songs get lots of play throughout the movie (and OF COURSE he himself appears in one scene, performing a couple of the tunes). Most of them are played with just the music, not the words - which makes sense, because after all, a song with the title "Freddy's Dead" could be construed as a spoiler. It made me really appreciate the musicianship of Mayfield and his band: the percussion in "Pusherman," the horns in "Little Child Runnin' Wild," the guitar in "Give Me Your Love." So much of black popular music these days is electronically based that it's easy to forget that music like this is part of our legacy as well.

"Been told I can't be nuthin' else/Just a hustler in spite of myself
I know I can break it//This life just don't make it"
Mayfield's lyrics capture the spirit of the movie perfectly, but after all, it was simply a reflection of the issues that plagued black America back in the 70s. It always astonishes me, whenever I listen to singers like the Impressions or the Temptations or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes or Sly and the Family Stone or Marvin and Stevie, how musicians like these could take the pain, the frustration, and the anger of black culture during this tumultuous period in American history and turn it into something beautiful. Something lyrical. Something that rocks! (And yeah, I guess you can say the same thing about hip hop today, to a degree, I suppose, though I'll still take classic soul every time.)

"The game he plays he plays for keeps/Hustlin' times and ghetto streets
Tryin' ta get over"
The liner notes to the Rhino 2-disc version of the Super Fly soundtrack have this to say:
...The genius in Curtis' multilayered dissection of Superfly [sic] is clear when contrasted with most soundtracks of the time. While Isaac Hayes (Shaft), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), and others wrote scintillating themes for movies, the remainder of their scores, though usually brilliant, was 90 percent instrumental, offering only a few loosely related songs. For Superfly [sic], Curtis took [screenwriter Phillip] Fenty's script and composed sharp character studies for each primary player, making every song essential, and thus securing his soundtrack as the genre's finest work.
I tend to prefer the way-down-deep voices of guys like Teddy Pendergrass or Levi Stubbs over the falsetto-voiced singers, but listening to the Impressions collection made me appreciate Mayfield's voice more. Within the context of the film, its sweetness is a contrast to the harshness of Priest and the world he occupies. 

"Everybody's misused him/Ripped him off and abused him
Another junkie plan/Pushin' dope for the Man"
One thing about the movie I should mention that I thought was interesting: there's a montage sequence of still photos of Priest selling his drugs, set to the song "Pusherman." It's a unusual storytelling choice for this movie, though I wouldn't necessarily call it artsy. Does it fit with the rest of the film? Eh. It's debatable. But I appreciate that director Gordon Parks Jr. (who took the photos) tried something different.

"I want you so, baby/Can't even get mad at you
What a thing/You really swing"
I saw Super Fly at the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the more popular New York Public Library (the one with the lion sculptures out front). The film's part of a series of New York-based films they're showing this summer. In high school and college, I went to this place all the time, not just for book reports, but mostly for their picture collection on the third floor. You see, kids, back in the prehistoric days before the Internet, whenever an artist needed photo reference, this was the best place to go, because they had folders and folders and folders of practically anything and everything you'd want. My school mates and I would spend hours there, looking through their files for just that right image at just the right angle. So this place has a few nice memories for me.

The screen they set up was in a first-floor room facing Fifth Avenue, but it wasn't big enough to obscure the view out the window completely, and as a result, I'd occasionally be distracted by people - especially hot chicks - walking outside. One guy in front of me actually took out his digital camera and snapped a few pictures during the movie. Go figure.

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