Monday, February 2, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: Black Caesar (1973), Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), and Hell Up in Harlem (1974)

Black Caesar tends to get mentioned as one of the blaxploitation flim genre's better moments. Loosely based on the 1931 gangster classic Little Caesar, it tells the story of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), who climbs the organized crime ladder and becomes the scourge of New York City's corrupt lawmakers. James Brown's soundtrack gives the movie added muscle, with his smoldering version of Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon's "Down and Out in New York City" as its theme.

According to the film's director Larry Cohen in Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak (2009), the Godfather of Soul had a habit of ignoring directors' time specifications for each cue, saddling them with extra editing work. He had done the same thing with his music for Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), and when Cohen requested to use a Brown soundtrack for the Black Caesar sequel (Hell Up in Harlem), American International rejected it, opting instead for Motown's Edwin Starr. Brown released the rejected music on his Payback album, which was aptly named because its title track hit #1 on Billboard's soul chart, while Starr's song only managed to reach #110 on the pop chart and was shut out of the soul listings. Also, the Payback album served as the score for Guy Ritchie's popular Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels twenty-four years later.

Here's a crucial bit of information one must know before viewing Black Caesar today: The ending on the DVD is different from how audiences experienced it in theaters in 1973. It contains a minute's worth of footage that was lopped off by Cohen after the first screenings. When you watch it on DVD, Tommy Gibbs staggers back to his old neighborhood, where a gang of black street thugs jumps him and presumably kills him. This is more in keeping with the comeuppance all gangsters received in thirties cinema and makes for a stronger, more poignant ending.

Test audiences were outraged by this original ending, though, and when it was trimmed to show Gibbs careening across a busy downtown sidewalk before credits rolled, peace was restored and the film became a big hit. When DVD and VHS versions came out in the early '80s, however, they used the original negative, so, according to Cohen, "there are two versions of the movie - the home video version and the theatrical cut" (pp. 51-52). Therefore, if you watch the critically unadmired Hell Up in Harlem immediately after Black Caesar, you scratch your head, wondering why the sequel starts with him at the crosswalk and never shows him getting the shaft at the old 'hood.

And by the way, if you're hoping to experience the James Brown soundtrack in action for Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973) (a sequel to 1972's Slaughter, both starring the unrelated Jim Brown), DVD versions with the original soundtrack, including the chart hit "Sexy Sexy Sexy," are pretty much impossible to find. They've all got a faux blaxploitation dummy score for some reason. More punishment for Soul Brother Number One for not following the original cue instructions?

James Brown - "Down and Out in New York City" (Billboard #50,  entered 3/10/73; soul #13). Written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon. Produced by James Brown. 45: "Down and Out in New York City"/"Mama's Dead" (Polydor 1973). LP: Black Caesar (Polydor 1973).

The B-side, "Mama's Dead," sounds as though Brown was captured in the studio shedding real tears.

James Brown - "Sexy Sexy Sexy" (Billboard #50, entered 8/18/73; soul #6). Written and produced by James Brown. 45: "Sexy Sexy Sexy"/"Slaughter Theme" (Polydor 1973). LP: Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (Polydor 1973).

(Again, the appearance of this song on any DVD version of the film is no guarantee.)

Edwin Starr - "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem" (Billboard #110, entered 2/23/74). Written by Freddie Perren. Produced by Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell. 45: "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem"/"Don't It Feel Good to Be Free" (Motown 1974). LP: Hell Up in Harlem (Motown 1974).

I wish "Big Pappa," the song that accompanies the film's sequence where Tommy Gibbs's old man goes gangster, was on side B. That would have made for a truly classic single.

James Brown - "The Payback, Pt. 1" (Billboard #26, entered 3/23/74; soul #1). Written by James Brown, Fred Wesley, and John Starks. Produced by James Brown. 45: "The Payback - Part I"/"The Payback - Part II" (Polydor 1973). LP: The Payback (Polydor 1973).

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