March 1, 2017

Blacksploitation Double Feature: Dolemite & The Human Tornado

Rudy Ray Moore films are controversial in almost every single way they could be. Moore brought his raunchy comedy routines featured on his (very successful) party records to all his films along with gratuitous amounts of nudity, outrageous clothing, ridiculous plots lines, asinine sex scenes, inexperienced crews, and ham-fisted acting. And even though his films could be argued as problematic, there's also no denying they were intensely popular, still have cult followings, and went on to influence culture for decades after their releases.

Dolemite's plot unfolds something like this: Dolemite is serving a 20 year sentence for being in possession of drugs and stolen furs when his good friend, Queen Bee, uncovers evidence that he was set up! Notorious gangster Willie Green had wanted Dolemite out of the way so he could take over his club. The warden releases Dolemite on the condition that he bring in Green, and that's exactly what he intends to do, even if he, Queen Bee, and a band of Kung Fu fighting vixens have to go through every “rat soup eatin' motherfucker” in South Central to do it!

Where did the Dolemite character come from?: Originally, the Dolemite character belonged to Rico, a wino that frequented Dolphin's of Hollywood where Moore was employed. By Moore's own recounting, he paid Rico to put the Dolemite character on tape so Moore could use it in his own comedy act. Moore put Dolemite on one of his comedy records and it was an instant hit. After releasing a few more records in the same style, and saving up some seed money from touring, he put together a script and crew to produce a feature film to showcase his successful character. Once the movie hit theaters, it was another instant hit.

The production value: I had not seen this movie in it's entirety before we picked up the Vinegar Syndrome re-release, but I knew the production was notoriously bad, and somehow I was still shocked by exactly how bad it was. However, there's no denying the magnetic charm the movie oozes through all the booms dropping in to frame, edges of sets being fully in frame, and terribly blocked action. Those are all things we've seen before to varying degrees, but there's a big difference between this movie and other bad films we've watched: we actually know why this movie ended up like it did!

The director says the movie's shit: This was director D'Urville Martin's first venture in directing and according to the people on set with him, he was very vocal about how bad he thought the film was, and was convinced that the movie would never make it to theaters. (Moore has since said that had Martin known the movie would be successful, by any metric, he would have put earnest effort into it.) Moore on the other hand had experience with people disregarding his ideas as laughable. He had to distribute his first (and very successful) party record featuring Dolemite himself, so he knew this movie could have legs no matter what anyone else said. And that's why there's an undeniable charm in spite of the abysmal production; Moore and a handful of others were giving as earnest of a performances as they were capable of whenever they were on screen, and it absolutely shows through.

The sequel is better than the original: Every once in a while, the sequel is better! With an experienced director taking the project seriously (and consequently a crew that took the project more seriously), The Human Tornado is the better of the two films.

The Human Tornado's plot unfolds something like this: After being run out of town by a racist sheriff, Dolemite and company flee to LA seeking refuge from his friend Queen Bee. When they arrive on the scene, they discover the mafia has taken over Queen Bee's club and kidnapped her top performers! Even with the law hot on his tail Dolemite, and his crew of Kung-Fu fighting badasses, are ready to save Bee's club and her top acts from the mob, and they're gonna look good doing it too.

A committed director makes a difference: Cliff Roquemore had at that point only directed theater productions, but his commitment to this film shows. Not to say this is a less ridiculous movie, but the production value is FAR higher than the first installment, and it makes a difference. (Though, there's one MAJOR exception, just keep reading...) The fight scenes are tighter (and weirder), the editing is better (likely due to more coverage), the cinematography is better (Dean Cundey worked on this for a min), Roquemore even brought some real actors with him (namely a young Ernie Hudson). They upped the ante on everything from the night club performances to the sex scenes. It pretty well illustrates that working with a director who has a vision for the film makes a huge difference, even if you're making b-level movies.

This woman's style is 20 years ahead of this film!

The director's sons: I, Dolomite features an interview with Cliff Roquemore's sons, as he had died in 2002. And I'll say, it's not often that I tear up while watching special features, but they are so fantastically proud of their father's largely unrecognized theater career, and get so emotional talking about it at one point, it just broke my heart. Directors that take low-budget films seriously are few and far between, we wish Roquemore would have had the opportunity to direct more films, because he likely would have been another Lary Cohen level fave of ours. 

Jimmy Lynch

The sets: Co-star Jimmy Lynch was responsible for most of the set decoration and manipulation for The Human Tornado (as well as some of the most outrageously wonderful wardrobe, that's a one sleeved jumpsuit that he made to the left). There's a particularly over the top sex-scene that features an entire room coming down around Dolemite and his lover, and Jimmy was responsible for all of it. The bed writhes, doors rattle, the ceiling falls on the couple, and it looks really good. It's a far cry from the first movie where the opening takes place in a room that you can CLEARLY see is a set the entire time.

Things to watch for: Every opportunity for a naked Rudy Ray Moore seized with gusto, the best bad-movie brawl ever committed to film, over the top villains, sensational costumes, and the worst stand-in you'll ever see.

The stand in: This is the major exception to the improved production. Ernie Hudson had agreed to appear in this film while his play was preparing to open in Minneapolis. So when shooting for The Human Tornado started running a little (a lot) long and Hudson's play was due to open, he had to bow out. Roquemore decided the best fix was to have Ernie's brother stand in for him on the rest of the picture. And that would be a fine idea, if the two of them looked even remotely alike. (You'll just have to watch this one to see what we mean, because I just spent WAY too long looking for a screen cap of that on the internet, and I seriously don't think there is one...) 

Further viewing: There are interviews and documentaries of every single caliber on Rudy Ray Moore all over the internet, but we got most of our information for this post from the Vinegar Syndrome documentary, I, Dolemite, comprised of archival and recent interviews with cast and crew. The documentary is broken into four segments covering the first four of Moore's films, and are included in the corresponding movie's special features. Every segment highlights some fantastically interesting stuff and if you're a fan, or into amassing that kind of knowledge, we highly recommend these discs. (They're all available here, and elsewhere on the web.)

The legacy of these films: Rudy Ray Moore is generally considered the godfather of rap. His comedy monologues were basically rhyming themed poems, recited in character, with music he wrote playing behind them. (He also wrote music to play behind his long-time friend and comedy partner, Lady Reed's comedy of the same style.) When you look back at early 80s hip-hop, that's the basic formula, only instead of having access to musicians in clubs to back performances, early hip-hop was backed by people manipulating previously recorded music on turntables. But hip-hop of the 80s was notoriously tame. Gangsta rap that came along in the 90s was a direct push back against that tameness, and samples of Moore's raunchy party records ran rampant through the albums of that time. There's a frequently cited quote from Snoop Dogg that pretty well encapsulates how much Moore's crass verse and singularly flamboyant style impacted his career: "Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that's for real." We don't doubt it, and it makes us wonder what gangsta rap would have looked like without Dolemite.

A footnote instead of a Godmother: When researching Moore, I was overwhelmed by the information available on him and his career. So when it came time to look into his partner in comedy, Lady Reed, I was crushed to discover she doesn't have so much as a Wikipedia page. I spend at least three hours using every research trick I know to turn up something, ANYTHING on her. Nothing. There are some youtube videos with tracks off her comedy records, but that's it. If there's one reason to buy Vinegar Syndrome's reissue of Dolemite, it's because there's a long (though badly filmed) interview with Lady Reed when she's a grandmother. She talks about how she was writing for Rudy when he convinced her to take the stage herself, what touring with a bunch of dudes was like, about the two of them taking turns working the door at clubs to be sure they didn't get ripped off, she even recites some of her routines off the cuff. It's interesting to hear her talk about being part of something that would become so influential in her own words, and it truly makes us wish there was more of her words available to us. But suffice to say, if Moore is the godfather of rap, Lady Reed is the godmother.

Final thoughts: Moore employed a far more diverse cast and crew than any other film we wrote up this month (we didn't even touch on the rumors that he employed many gay men to his crews), and together they made films they wanted to see but weren't being made. They made these films without the support of studios and they were intensely successful! The films they made are perfect illustrations of why we love "bad" cinema, boom mics in frame and all.

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