Rule of Three: Disco Godfather (1979)

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. At least, that’s what they say. Rudy Ray Moore was never very big, though, and it’s difficult to imagine a fall harder than Disco Godfather.

The movie wasn’t just disappointing; it singlehandedly sunk Moore’s career. It was a movie so bad it seemed expertly designed to dismantle everything Moore had built. It’s a strange product of monumental misjudgment that is almost beyond understanding.

Watching it is a dismal experience. It’s sad and disheartening. Every artist ends up producing garbage at some point, but Disco Godfather is like watching gravity reassert itself, the universe finally realizing Moore had bent the rules and now must be punished. If that sounds overly dramatic, so be it; I’m talking about Disco Godfather, and “overly dramatic” is the nicest thing anyone can possibly say about this movie.

With Dolemite, Moore left his stamp on the action film. With Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law, he left his stamp on the horror film. Here, in Disco Godfather, he attempts to leave his stamp on a drama.

Until this point, Moore had the golden touch, transforming a number of bad ideas into successful endeavors, so nobody can really blame him for thinking he might have been able to do the same with Disco Godfather.

The difference is that Moore’s sense of humor, innate charm, and hammy performances work damn well when paired with action or horror, two genres audiences often turn to for a good time. Audiences don’t turn to drama when they want a fun night out, making Moore a distractingly poor fit for the film. It doesn’t help that Disco Godfather was essentially Moore’s then-modern retelling of Reefer Madness.

To be completely fair to Moore and to everyone else who worked on the film, PCP / angel dust / wack (the film calls it by all three names) is bad. I think we can all agree on that. Whereas the hysteria over marijuana was largely misplaced and mishandled, I don’t think many of us reading this would feel comfortable learning that a friend or family member were a regular user of PCP.

There’s nothing wrong, then, with framing the drug as A Bad Thing within the context of a film. What is bad — what demonstrably turned out to be bad — is building approaching it with all of the intelligence and nuance of Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.

It’s also at least a little embarrassing that Disco Godfather attempts to ride the momentum of a scene that was already well into decline by 1979. It’s not the sort of thing folks will recognize as easily today (if something is set in the 1970s, disco is fair — and almost necessary — game), but when a reporter visits The Disco Godfather to discuss “the disco dance craze, you know, why it’s happening,” well after disco’s peak, it had to strike audiences as being embarrassingly out of touch.

Moore, of course, plays The Disco Godfather himself. If there’s one genre of music Rudy Ray Moore is the least associated with, it’s got to be Bavarian zither folk. But disco would certainly be a close second.

It’s genuinely sad to watch Moore pretend he has any interest in disco whatsoever, a mere five years after he bucked every trend imaginable for Dolemite. Moore was always chasing his own vision; Disco Godfather forces him to chase one he can’t possibly have shared.

And though he tried — God bless him, he did try — no kind of love or enthusiasm for the material comes through. Even during his trademark rhyming monologues, the music drowns him out. Whether that’s due to terrible audio mixing or an uncommonly muted delivery by Moore, we can read a hell of a lot into that.

Before I get too far into this, let me say one thing clearly: I love disco. My criticism of Disco Godfather isn’t some way to score cheap laughs by swinging at a universal punching bag.

I wouldn’t dare say disco is good music, but it’s fun. It makes me feel good. It’s danceable. It’s light and often silly but it also has this driving, irresistible quality that can bring me up no matter how low I’m feeling.

In fact, before watching it, I expected to adore Disco Godfather. Rudy Ray Moore and disco? Sign me the fuck up.

It’s not that I went into this film with a closed mind. I did something far worse: I went into it ready to be entertained.

Disco Godfather begins with a sequence it repeats with minor variations regularly throughout the film: extras disco dance for minutes on end.

They’re at Blueberry Hill, a dance club run by The Disco Godfather. It’s the hottest disco around, as I’m sure we’d expect from one named after a song that was nearly 40 years older than disco. We’re led to believe that The Disco Godfather himself is the main draw, and that’s fine, but I’m not really sure how that can be true.

Admittedly, Moore is a showman, and both Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw understandably drew upon that talent to position him as the main draw for the central clubs in those films as well. Disco Godfather doing the same thing is perfectly reasonable on paper, but a disco is a very different kind of club. It’s loud. People dance. They pay attention to each other, to the groove, to the drugs that are passed around. In the previous movies we discussed, patrons would pay to sit down and watch a show. In this movie, the patrons are the show.

Disco Godfather must realize this on some level; it knows nobody is paying attention to Moore reciting his rhyming monologues as irrelevant disco beats drown him out. But the film wants us to believe the entire reason folks flock to Blueberry Hill is for these very performances they can’t possibly even hear.

The film could, of course, actively paint Moore’s character as the relic of a bygone age; clubs have evolved to the point that his particular brand of performance might still be respected but is no longer embraced. Moore might still have talent, but audiences have moved on.

That would be a sad story, but not as sad as Disco Godfather, which unwittingly paints him as exactly that kind of relic while asking us not to acknowledge it. Instead of telling us Moore has lost touch, it shows us instead. It’s a more convincing and damning argument than a script written around the idea could have ever been.

On this particular evening, The Disco Godfather’s nephew, Bucky, goes outside to kiss his girlfriend. His friend is also outside. His girlfriend tells Bucky not to smoke angel dust. His friend tells Bucky to smoke angel dust. Bucky smokes angel dust.

We don’t see him smoke it; instead we see his girlfriend storm back into the club, screaming and weeping to an extent that makes it seem like Bucky must have been killed in a drive-by shooting. She rushes up to The Disco Godfather, who halts his set immediately — and understandably — to find out what’s wrong.

What’s wrong is that Bucky smoked angel dust. The Disco Godfather tells the girl to call an ambulance.

Bucky — out of his mind on PCP — stumbles into the club, has visions, runs out of the club, and is indeed taken away by an ambulance. This is tragic, certainly, but the overacting makes it feel like he’s being taken away by a coroner instead.

Bucky’s visions are the first of many we’ll see in the film; they all take place in a black void with very minimal lighting shining on the characters or monsters we’re meant to pay attention to. The lighting is a bit less red, which is the only thing that differentiates these scenes from the Hell sequences in Petey Wheatstraw. When the drama we’re supposed to take seriously is shot exactly like the horror comedy we were meant to laugh at, there’s a problem.

The Disco Godfather is upset. Bucky has a promising basketball career, but injures his hand in some unexplained way during his angel dust hallucinations, so he won’t be able to play. He’s visited many times during his long recovery by The Disco Godfather — or, in this case, his Disco Uncle — and Dr. Mathis.

Mathis is played by Moore’s regular collaborator Jerry Jones, who we remember from Dolemite both as FBI Agent Blakely and the screenwriter.

Honestly, he’s one of the few actors who acquits himself well enough in Disco Godfather. In the midst of the histrionics, he manages to stay relatively reserved. That may well be down to a lack of range in his acting — we’ve only ever seen him reserved — but it works wonders here to make Dr. Mathis feel like the lone human amongst the Muppets.

His role consists of little other than delivering exposition and the requisite Bad News to the families of his patients. It’s a role that exists entirely for the sake of its own function, but it’s not Jones’ fault that someone needs to spur The Disco Godfather into action.

“Haven’t you heard, Godfather?” he asks The Disco Godfather. “Our children are dying.” And with that, The Disco Godfather sets about a tried-and-true Rudy Ray Moore objective: cleaning up the streets.

It’s hardly surprising that if Moore were to make a message movie, this would be the message. Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw might have had some muddled moralities, but it was clear that Moore saw the spread of drugs, the influence of pushers, and the frequency of violence as serious issues in impoverished communities.

What’s more, Moore was no fool; he was fully aware of the fact that Dolemite gunning down corrupt cops and Petey sending winos to Hell were not actions compatible with what he’d see as true social progress, and that was okay. He was making movies that were primarily fun.

Disco Godfather is no fun at all, because — like Dr. Mathis — it exists for the sake of its own function. It’s preachy and didactic. Rudy Ray Moore running a disco could have been a raucous, farcical delight. But for the message to come through — for the morality to remain unmuddled — it had to be direct and sincere. It couldn’t be something people might think about when they were done laughing; it had to be something they’d think about during every second of the film and think about even more deeply every second afterward.

All of which would have been fine for a commercial-break PSA featuring Moore, but it makes for one hell of a dismal film.

What’s even stranger — or more disappointing, depending upon your perspective — is the way in which his character goes about cleaning up the streets.

In Dolemite, he ripped the guts out of a pusher with his bare hands. In Petey Wheatstraw, he waved his magical pimp cane. These are two things that are very easy to associate with Moore and the persona he crafted for himself.

In Disco Godfather, he does probably the last thing we’d associate with Moore’s persona: He goes to the police.

There are a few layers to this incongruity, but at the very least it seems to be a pretty passive way of dealing with the problem. Part of Moore’s appeal — both on screen and off — was his willingness to buck the system, to find his own solutions to problems, to, in a word, Get Shit Done.

That’s part of what makes us love characters, heroes and scoundrels alike. We enjoy and appreciate their inventiveness and their dedication to accomplishing whatever it is they’d like to accomplish. In fact, the journey toward that very accomplishment often defines who they are.

For The Disco Godfather to stroll into a police station and say, “I would like some cops to fix this problem, please,” is to dissolve every reason anybody would have wanted to watch a Rudy Ray Moore movie.

There’s more to it than that, I admit, but the complication is one that far from works in the film’s favor.

See, we learn that The Disco Godfather used to be a cop. A great cop, actually, who retired to run a disco for God knows what reason. Maybe because it’s always been his dream to recite rhyming monologues behind music too loud for anyone to hear him.

In a way, this is good; The Disco Godfather gets permission to work with his old colleagues, keeping him involved in the action and — potentially — the problem’s resolution. In another way, Rudy Ray Moore isn’t just scampering for help from the police; he is the police.

This is what I mean by Disco Godfather feeling like it was specifically dismantling anything people liked about Moore. The man who famously spat in the face of the establishment was suddenly part of that establishment. It was essentially like Moore breaking character at the end of an incendiary comedy routine to say to the audience, “We’ve all had a lot of fun here tonight, folks, but, please, let’s remember that the boys in blue are our friends and they deserve nothing less than our deepest respect.”

It’s not something Moore’s audience would appreciate, which is why Disco Godfather ended up having no audience.

The film worked overtime to position the energetic upstart Moore as a crusty representative of the old guard. It’s strange and disorienting. For how out of touch it wanted Moore to seem, the film probably should have been called Disco Grandfather.

The PCP is being manufactured and distributed via a system run by Stinger Ray (Hawthorne James in the first of what would be many, many film roles to follow, making his career perhaps the only positive thing to come out of this fiasco). On the surface, Ray is a…sports entrepreneur, for lack of a better term? He’s in the public eye for founding a basketball team (“The Stingrays, of course!”) consisting entirely of players who were turned down by the NBA.

“You take a guy who’s played ball most of his life,” Ray says to a reporter. “He’s going to be hungry. If he can’t make the NBA, he’s going to be mad and hungry. With my new team, the objective is to pick up those guys. I can’t lose.”

…which does make a kind of sense but really doesn’t separate The Stingrays from any other team. Don’t all teams take the best players they can get? Aren’t those players often only available because other teams have passed them up?

That’s just a bit of faulty logic, which any film will have, and it’s washed away beneath a much larger, much more idiotic example of narrative confusion: Why would Stinger Ray want to flood with drugs the very streets from which he hopes to draw his basketball talent? This isn’t one of those “hey waitaminute…” realizations you’ll only have later; it’s an explicit plot point in the film.

It’s Ray who is supplying the PCP to Bucky. Bucky, the promising young basketball star who can’t play because he’s so strung out on PCP he can’t get out of bed at the hospital.

What is Ray’s endgame? Does he prefer the money he makes from the drugs to the money he could be making from his basketball team? If so, why put himself in the public eye by owning a basketball team at all? And if not, why bother with the drugs?

The answer can’t be “he wants both,” because one is explicitly being held back by the other. He can’t have a team of overlooked superstar basketballers and a team of braindead PCP zombies. I guess I should admire Ray’s willingness to diversify, but it really seems like he hasn’t thought any of this through.

All of this makes him seem like far more of a boob than this movie needs him to seem. Stinger Ray is meant to stand as the first genuine threat in a Rudy Ray Moore movie. That’s an honor not even Satan himself was granted. For once, the question wasn’t “How is Moore going to kick this guy’s ass?” Now it was, “This guy is so scary and so powerful and such an imposing figure, can Moore do anything at all?”

All while Disco Godfather makes it hard for anyone to believe this guy even knows how to tie his shoes.

In addition to the clubs, drugs, street cleaning, and rhyming monologues, we also get two other Rudy Ray Moore hallmarks: kung fu and womanizing. The kung fu doesn’t seem to be shot nearly as well as it was in Petey Wheatstraw — which is saying something — but in keeping with tearing down Moore’s image, The Disco Godfather doesn’t seem to be all that good at fighting, being easily overpowered by two goons disguised as telephone repairmen.

It’s more realistic, sure — even somebody with training would likely find himself beaten by two men who got the drop on him — but it’s much less fun.

Ditto the womanizing. Here, his lone conquest is Noel, played by Carol Speed. She’s neither a bad character nor a bad actor, but she certainly doesn’t leave an impression. The sex scene also just involves Moore thrusting on top of her in a flat angle; it’s a far cry from the room-destroying intercourse of The Human Tornado or the fast-motion carnal buffet of Petey Wheatstraw.

More realistic, again, sure, but no human being wanted to see a “realistic” Rudy Ray Moore film. All it does is rob the man of his particular magic, leaving him exposed, floundering in the light.

There’s even a scene in which Moore interacts with kids that seems like a direct response to one in Petey Wheatstraw. In that film he found some kids who were too distracted by the game they were playing to realize they were in danger of being run over. Petey defuses the situation but gives them (at least partially) deserved guff for their carelessness. He then combs the hair of one of them until the kid cries.

Here, he encounters kids equally distracted by their game of jacks. He offers them a quarter if they can pick up all of the jacks at once. The kids ignore him and do everything short of saying “fuck off.” He pays them anyway, and the kids run away. “Kids is a lot of fun, ain’t they, man?” he says afterward, without a hint of irony.

The Disco Godfather intermittently sets about tracking down the source of the PCP. It involves a puzzling assassination attempt at Blueberry Hill, which sees the thugs gunned down by the cops, only The Disco Godfather knows they aren’t real cops, and then the real cops do show up for some reason and arrest The Disco Godfather for having nothing to do with the assassination attempt, I guess, and later we find out the fake cops were working with the thugs?

I have no idea, in short, why the people working together to kill The Disco Godfather would instead kill each other or why the people working with The Disco Godfather to catch the bad guys would arrest him for literally doing nothing other than spinning records while the bad guys shot each other.

I’m starting to believe this movie wasn’t especially well thought out!

The Disco Godfather talks with Dr. Mathis, who walks him through a clinic of patients destroyed by PCP. They’re actors who mumble to themselves and make faces while Dr. Mathis tells horrific tales of what they’ve done to themselves and others.

One woman holding a doll was preparing dinner for her family while blitzed on angel dust. She heard the ham crying, so she cooked it…only it was actually her baby! You know; the cautionary tale we all heard growing up, told to us by someone who knew someone whose neighbor’s distant relative did exactly that.

It’s also something that has never happened in the history of mankind. For such a realistic film, couldn’t Disco Godfather have given us a more relatable — or at least less clearly fabricated — example of how a parent might harm or kill a child while under the influence?

Driving while intoxicated. Falling asleep with a cigarette in their mouth. Shaking a baby that won’t stop crying. Falling down the stairs while holding the kid. Passing out on the floor while Little Johnny finds his way into the cleaning products and drinks some bleach.

Disco Godfather, I’m trying to say, has its heart in the right place. If it wants to tell a story about how drugs ruin lives, go for it. But at show how drugs do ruin lives, and don’t resort to dramatic reenactments of dead-eyed women serving roast baby at Thanksgiving dinner.

Elsewhere in the film Dr. Mathis and the reporter who is excited about this whole up-and-coming disco thing speak at an “Attack the Wack” anti-drug rally. It serves no narrative purpose, isn’t funny, isn’t interesting, sheds no additional light on anything we know, and doesn’t advance the plot. It’s an anti-drug screed embedded in what’s already a feature-length anti-drug screed.

The Disco Godfather pays a visit to Bob, a kindly old teacher who may have some information on how to track down the head dealer. I just watched the movie and already can’t remember if Bob told our hero anything useful; he exists only so the drug dealers can murder him as a warning to The Disco Godfather.

Also, The Disco Godfather buys Bob a dog so that the drug dealers can also murder the dog as a warning to The Disco Godfather.

Also, instead of killing all these things as warnings to The Disco Godfather you’d think they’d just go ahead and kill The Disco Godfather, but what do I know?

Ultimately, our obsolete hero manages to track down Stinger Ray. Or, rather, he’s captured by Stinger Ray’s goons, including a cartoon cowboy.

The Disco Godfather defeats him, and then defeats a bunch of other people, too, with the help of a passing jogger.

“What’s happening man, you need some help?” the jogger asks. “This is an angel dust factory,” replies The Disco Godfather. The jogger says, “Angel dust?!” then immediately tears off his shirt and starts beating up the bad guys.

I’m about 60% sure this was a deliberate joke. I’m 100% sure it’s the funniest thing in the movie.

The Disco Godfather then does what he does best: nothing. He gets knocked out and tied to a chair, where a gas mask is fitted over his face and pumped full of PCP. As another warning, I guess.

Again, this entire film has consisted of nothing but opportunities to murder The Disco Godfather, but the guys who want him dead don’t seem to realize that.

He overpowers his captors and gets the mask off, but not before…y’know…breathing. Which means the entire final sequence is the most embarrassingly dramatized drug trip in motion-picture history.

The Disco Godfather sees a demon — the same demon other PCP users see, so I guess she’s real — and also his mother, for no reason except so that she can turn into the demon. Then he finds Stringer Ray and beats him up while actual cartoons are drawn over the image in a way that somebody, somewhere, at some point, must have believed would be…

…scary? Effective? Interesting? I honestly have no clue what they were going for here, but I’m confident in saying they didn’t achieve it.

Then Bucky shows up, because while we weren’t looking he recovered from his injuries and kicked his PCP habit. But he sees that The Disco Godfather is in the thralls of an angel dust trip and he screams and the movie ends.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Petey Wheatstraw also ended on a freeze frame of a screaming Moore, but that was a comedy with a story. The freeze frame on Petey’s realization that he’s going to Hell was both an ending and a punchline.

Here, it’s just the last bit of film on the reel. Nothing about The Disco Godfather being interrupted mid-trip has anything to do with what we’ve seen. Not narratively, not thematically, not emotionally. It has nothing to do with his character or anybody else’s character. It’s not affecting or worrying or frightening. It feels like the movie literally saying, “Okay, that’s it; we are done making Disco Godfather.”

And if that’s what it is, then that’s honestly the best creative choice made by Disco Godfather.

I get that drugs “winning” in the end is what matters. However much the police push back, however much citizens do their part, however many Disco Godfather movies we make, drugs will remain a serious threat. They shouldn’t be trivialized, the movie believes, and that’s okay. That’s a valid perspective.

But we don’t see drugs “win.” We see one character who has no interest in them caught in a hallucination. He’ll go to the hospital just like Bucky did — Dr. Mathis is even here already — and he’ll be given a safe space to recover. The Disco Godfather isn’t hooked on drugs. The Disco Godfather hasn’t baked any babies. The Disco Godfather won’t start pushing angel dust on kids.

He’s just a man whose story artificially ends in a moment of temporary difficulty. The audience isn’t left asking, “What happens next?” It’s left asking, “Why did this movie happen at all?”

The Disco Godfather — like the movie named after him — ends on a low point. It didn’t have to, but it does.

And that’s also where it left Rudy Ray Moore.

He appeared in a few other films, but never again would he have the creative control he once managed to seize when nobody was looking. Often he was relegated to winking cameos, either playing or channeling Dolemite. He was like Bob Denver, turning up whenever somebody needed a Gilligan because that’s all anybody would pay him for.

In 2002, long after any kind of comeback stood a chance, Moore starred in The Return of Dolemite. He was in his mid-70s by this time and spent as much of the film as possible sitting in chairs. In 2008, he passed away at the age of 81.

For a man of such natural drive and charisma, for the underdog who consistently dreamed big and held onto ambitions long after saner men would have given up, this must have been agony.

Moore had managed it once. He’d reached for the stars and actually plucked one of them out of the sky. Surely, he must have thought in the almost three decades between the film that killed his career and the day he died, he’d be able to do it again.

Interviews leading up to The Return of Dolemite (retitled The Dolemite Explosion for home media, for reasons I cannot fathom) saw Moore feeling optimistic. He was excited. He believed the movie would be good and he did his best not to spoil any of the fun ahead of time. He wanted people to go see it in theaters and roar with appreciation the way they had when they’d seen the first Dolemite.

But that audience had moved on, and Moore never found a new one. The movie quietly drifted into and out of theaters, and that was that. Moore must have known on some level that his career had ended, but the failure of The Return of Dolemite made it clear that his career was never coming back.

I’d love to tell you Disco Godfather is better than its reputation suggests. I’d love to tell you it’s a hidden gem. I’d love to tell you there are enough worthwhile moments to justify watching it at least once.

I can’t do that, and that’s the frustrating thing. Somebody like Moore really should have spent his last true moment in the spotlight doing everything he did best. It should have been something we could look at in retrospect and realize was ahead of its time, or artistically daring, or at least ambitious.

But it’s not. Nothing about the film works, and nothing about the film seems like it could have worked.

Disco Godfather did the impossible; it made Rudy Ray Moore seem disposable. It broke the spell that had elevated the man above his station, and it wasn’t even a movie that was worth the gamble. Moore spent his life assuring the world he’d have something to say if only they’d listen, and then they did listen and he gave them Disco Godfather. They weren’t going to listen again.

His earlier films are worth revisiting. Moore was a singular talent, the likes of whom don’t come about often and are given a platform even more rarely. He was crude and ridiculous and deeply fucking lovable, and he did what every single person reading this review (and the guy writing it) wish they could do: He dreamed up a perfect world for himself, and then brought it to life.

Disco Godfather is easy enough to ignore. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he made this film rather than literally anything else.

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