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.

Rule of Three: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)

Rudy Ray Moore will always be remembered for Dolemite, but his crowning achievement is without question Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law.

Everything about Petey Wheatstraw represents an improvement over Dolemite, and often a substantial one. It’s smarter and funnier. The acting, writing, casting, blocking, pacing, and fight choreography are much better. Whereas Dolemite felt like a vanity project — which it was, even if it was a more inclusive one than most — Petey Wheatstraw feels like a movie.

Not just a movie, either; it’s a genuinely good movie. Moments approach greatness. Its laughs are almost uniformly genuine. I don’t have any specific insight into Rudy Ray Moore, but I’d be shocked to my core if I found out he had been upset at any point that people had laughed at Dolemite instead of laughing with it. I honestly get the sense he would have still considered that to be a kind of success.

Moore never took himself too seriously. If he caught somebody chuckling at the sight of his beer gut poking out from under his shirt during what was meant to be an exciting kung-fu sequence, I think he still would have been proud of himself. He brought joy to somebody. Maybe not the precise flavor of joy he had intended, but he made somebody’s day that much brighter.

Am I waxing romantic? Maybe, but it’s not without reason. Early in Petey Wheatstraw, our protagonist, as a child, does the same. He confides to his elderly mentor that he wants to grow up and become a comedian. It’s important to him and, he believes, to the world.

“I always wanted to be on stage, making people laugh,” he tells the old man. “So I can try and save the world from some of its misery.” Like Rudy Ray Moore himself, young Petey sees comedy as a noble calling. Let’s be completely fair to the boy: He’s right.

Every human being loves to laugh, and not every human being has the gift of making others laugh. Moore had it, and he knew he did. It was his obligation, therefore, to put it in front of as many people as possible. On stage, on record, on screen. However he could reach those who needed the laughs he could give them, it was his job to do it. The best part? The guy loved his job.

Petey Wheatstraw is an hour and a half of a man loving his job. It’s a horror comedy with a firm moral lesson that Moore as Petey stubbornly refuses to learn. He makes a deal with The Devil, reaps the benefits, and spends the rest of the film trying to outwit Old Scratch. It’s the barest sketch of a plot, but it’s more than enough to get us to a lot of funny places and a few pretty surprising ones.

The film opens with an adult Petey Wheatstraw addressing the audience directly. He is going to tell us his story, beginning with the night of his birth, in Miami, during a devastating storm.

Moore’s opening, rhyming monologue suggests that we’ll be in familiar Dolemite territory, but with the exception of a few hallmarks, we will not be. The birthing scene that follows makes that very clear.

Petey’s mother, wracked with pain, is in her bed, calling out for a doctor who hasn’t yet arrived. She’s comically huge; when the doctor shows up, he asks if she’s pregnant with an elephant.

The scene feels like an isolated comedy skit, and that’s exactly how it plays out. The woman gives birth to a watermelon. Petey bites the doctor as he tries to deliver him. Petey emerges as what looks like a 10-year-old boy and beats up the doctor for spanking him. He then attacks his father for “stabbing” him every night in his sleep.

There’s a setup, then a mix of punchlines, visual gags, and physical comedy. The scene doesn’t last any longer than it needs to and it ends the moment it runs out of jokes. It’s exactly something you might see in a sketch comedy show — though it would have had to be a pretty daring one for the time — and we’re told everything we need to know about Petey Wheatstraw: You’re meant first and foremost to laugh. Don’t take anything too seriously. The film’s logic is its own.

All good lessons, but there’s one more you might not notice as easily. See, as overtly comic as the scene is, and as much of a comedian as this film’s leading man is, Moore doesn’t appear in this sequence.

There’s no reason he couldn’t. He could have easily played his own father. He could even have played Petey. (The boy is already not an infant at birth; he could just as easily have been birthed as a full-grown, smack-talking smartass with incredible facial hair.) Instead, Moore lets other people have the spotlight. He opens his best movie by letting others get all of the laughs, on their own.

We saw a bit of this disarming selflessness in Dolemite, and we’ll see much more of it here. Moore was becoming more comfortable handing the reins over to others, giving them longer spotlights, letting them share their own noble callings with whoever needed to see them. The best part, though, is that it never feels like we’re getting less Moore. Petey Wheatstraw is still a Rudy Ray Moore film, and we’re never more than a few minutes away from the man himself working his magic.

As Petey grows, he finds himself having to fight to survive in a rough neighborhood. That’s one of Moore’s hallmarks; I can’t say how much of it he might have drawn from his own life, but the idea of a community being willfully shitty clearly fascinated him. He had to be busted out of jail in Dolemite to restore order. Later in Petey Wheatstraw, our hero has his car torn apart by junkies. In Disco Godfather he…well, you’ll see.

Here, an old man sees a spunky but unskilled Petey lose a fight. He takes the boy on as a protégé and teaches him another Moore hallmark: kung-fu.

And this, silly as it may seem, is actually important. Moore did plenty of kung-fu in Dolemite and The Human Tornado, but it was clear that he had no idea what he was doing. Last week I pointed out that the fight scenes weren’t shot well, either, but I can’t fault director D’Urville Martin too much for that. Was it worth shooting them well? (The fantastic Dolemite is My Name, with Wesley Snipes as Martin, answers this with one of the film’s best jokes.)

At some point, perhaps gradually since his first film, Moore must have actually learned kung-fu. That’s not to say he’s any kind of master by the time of Petey Wheatstraw, but he’s improved noticeably. He’s studied it, practiced it, or at least taken a crash course in it, because he looks more competent and comfortable with it throughout.

As such, the cinematography rises to meet him. We’re no longer watching a comedian floundering his way through an action scene; we’re watching an action scene. Moore and writer/director Cliff Roquemore let us know up front that Petey has received martial arts training, not because it’s necessary to know but because it was worth drawing attention to just how much better at it Moore would be during this film.

When we catch up to Petey in his adult years, we find that he has indeed achieved his dream of being a much-loved comedian. Unlike Dolemite, he’s an insult comedian. This sets him apart to some degree from that character, as biting, spontaneous personal barbs are a much different artform from recitations of long, profane poetry, but I do admit it’s pretty funny to find out that Petey’s dream of making people happier is fulfilled by having him professionally insult them. I don’t think that’s an intentional joke on the part of the film, but it’s amusing anyway.

Petey is so accomplished in his craft that the mere fact that he schedules a show sends the owners of a rival club — another Moore staple — into a panic. This time it’s because Leroy and Skillet — a real-life comic duo Moore turns over several spotlights to — have taken a $100,000 investment from Mr. White. The idea was that they would use the money to book incredible acts during the down season, when they wouldn’t have any competition. As the only game in town and with acts worth seeing, they’d pack the house every night and make themselves and Mr. White a lot of money.

Then Petey Wheatstraw books a gig the very day after Leroy and Skillet are set to open, and this is a problem. Mr. White alluded to severe consequences if his investment didn’t pay off, and violence was likely the very least of these.

So far, so sedate. And to the credit of Leroy and Skillet, they do call Petey and ask him politely to delay his gig. Petey refuses to do so, which is understandable, but which also inspires his adversaries to take more drastic measures.

The pair hires a few goons to rough up Ted, one of Petey’s friends. Things don’t go quite as expected, as Ted’s kid brother Larry is there for the confrontation and refuses to leave. With the situation now overcomplicated, one of the goons pulls a gun on Ted.

Little Larry saves his big brother by taking the bullet instead. The thugs flee. The neighbors call an ambulance. Larry dies on the lawn.

It’s a dramatic scene which doesn’t quite seem to fit…and, hey, it doesn’t. I’ll admit that. But I do think the tonal shift is deliberate and important. This isn’t the graceless tonal whiplash of a Medea film; this is a comedy that is about to give its freewheeling hero a reason to get serious.

The death of Larry isn’t played for laughs, and Ted — played by Ted Clemmons — is legitimately emotional here.

The scene ends and the drama doesn’t let up. We see Larry’s casket being carried out of his funeral service. The boy’s grieving friends and family descend the church steps. It’s a powerful sequence. Everything here is grounded, real, and effective.

The thugs return. Sure, killing Larry sent a message, but it didn’t solve the central problem: Petey Wheatstraw is still in the way.

They open fire on Petey, striking him several times and hitting a number of mourners as well.

They drop the casket. Bodies fall. Others curl up and hope for the best, unable to take cover from this major tragedy as they were still processing another.

It’s real. It’s rough. That tonal shift was serious; it wasn’t one misjudged scene. It was deliberate, and now things are getting worse.

Then everything freezes. The dead, the dying, and the disoriented stop wherever they are. Clothing still ripples in the breeze, but nobody is moving or can move.

And a man strolls into frame.

He notices the devastation around him, is aware of what happened, but isn’t upset. He steps calmly around the bodies until he reaches Petey, who he restores to life. He offers Petey an opportunity to rewind time. To prevent this. To save himself and the people he loves.

It’s important that Petey makes his literal deal with The Devil over something like this and not, say, fame or fortune. We need to like Petey. We need to stay on his side, even as he does something as clearly foolish as shaking hands with the Father of Lies. Had Petey dabbled with darkness for his own gain, it would be pretty easy to dismiss anything that happened afterward as being well deserved. Instead, his bad decision becomes one that’s pretty damned understandable.

In that moment, wouldn’t you give anything to turn back the clock?

We’re eased back into the comedy, which is wise. This is not the time for a pie in the face; we’ll need to build back up to that. The man hands Petey a business card, which Petey reads.

“Lou Cypher?” asks Petey. “A small mistake on the part of the printer,” replies the man, masterfully undercutting the joke in a way that makes it much funnier.

I do need to take a moment here to say just how much I love G. Tito Shaw in this role. He immediately became one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Satan on film. Shaw didn’t go on to do anything else; this is, at least, his only credit on IMDb, which seems positively criminal. He is a fantastic Satan, and he manages to be one without ever slipping into overdone territory.

Shaw’s Satan is both affable and cold, shifting from one to the other in the space between two lines of dialogue. He’s a frightening presence when he wants to be, but as you can tell from the screengrabs he can’t rely on physical intimidation. Which is fine. He’s Satan. Satan isn’t scary because he can beat you up; Satan is scary because he can seal you into an eternity of torment.

And so Satan in this film doesn’t rely much on threats. He doesn’t need to. As much as threats might scare us, Petey Wheatstraw understands that the promises should be what keeps us on edge. The kindly man with the grey beard does get visibly angry at a few points, but it’s all just theatrics. He’s at his most menacing when he’s acting the way he looks: gentle and collected.

I don’t know how much of the character Shaw brought to the role. I’d like to give him as much credit as possible, but I do get the sense a lot of it must have come from the writing. There’s a scene later in the story that consists of nothing other than Satan in a red tracksuit, jogging down the street on a sunny day. He’s all smiles. He waves at passersby. He is the embodiment of all that is evil and damn does that make him happy.

In exchange for rewinding time and letting Petey change his destiny, Satan requires that Petey marry his daughter. Petey responds that he absolutely will not marry The Dark Lord’s daughter. “That’s madness, man,” he says. “You’ve got to be sick.”

Then he realizes that he might be able to weasel out of it later, so he agrees.

Satan shows him a photo of his daughter and Petey responds again that he absolutely will not marry her with a brilliantly flat, “Oh, Hell no.”

Then, a second time, he convinces himself that he might be able to weasel out of it later. It’s a funny exchange with great comic timing on Petey’s repeated backtracking.

And so with no intention of keeping up his end of the bargain, Petey lives again. We see the events of the funeral a second time, but now reversed. Evidently Satan couldn’t rewind time far enough to resurrect poor Larry, but at worst that’s a plot hole that’s easy to ignore.

It’s easy to ignore because…

…take a deep breath…

It’s easy to ignore because for the rest of the film, Petey has a magical pimp cane.

If the idea of Rudy Ray Moore wielding a magical pimp cane doesn’t fill you with glee, I don’t think you and I can be of the same species.

From here, Petey Wheatstraw gets even stranger and becomes even more fun. It lives up to every ounce of the promise inherent in the concept, and Moore absolutely relishes it.

Petey obviously has some specific business he needs to tend to, and so does Ted. Together they confront the thugs who killed Larry, and later a disguised Petey attends opening night for Leroy and Skillet. Sure enough, the duo has a packed house, with Mr. and Mrs. White at the foot of the stage with their guests.

The house band plays a groovy, brass-heavy number to set the tone for the night of entertainment to follow. Leroy and Skillet appear on stage, soak in the applause, and launch into their comedy routine.

Petey — I am already enjoying this sentence and I’ve only started writing it — waves his magical pimp cane and controls their minds.

He makes the duo deliver his own kind of insult comedy at the expense of the Whites.

Leroy and Skillet — and the Whites, of course — are mortified and have no idea what’s happening.

They abandon their act and call out a singer instead. Petey again waves his magical pimp cane to make her lose her voice…as well as her wig and her dress.

Something unexplainable is happening and the crowd becomes as distressed as Leroy and Skillet, which means it’s time for Petey’s grand finale: destroying the rival club.

He stands, waves his magical pimp cane, and brings the venue to a state of utter destruction. Thunder claps somewhere in the distance. Petey savors his revenge, and the film dwells just long enough on him standing there, alone in a destroyed theater, watching sparks rain down around him, that we see exactly how seduced he is by the power.

I don’t mean to oversell the gravity of the scene — there’s not much — but it’s impressive just how effective the sequence manages to be.

And then, of course, there’s comedy. Now that Petey knows what the magical pimp cane is capable of — erm…anything — there is so much more he can do with it. Leroy and Skillet are out of the picture. The thugs are dead. The cosmic balance has been zeroed out…which means Petey can now start the cosmos toward a net positive.

The montage that follows is fun, gorgeous, and infectious. It’s funny and heartwarming at once. Petey strolls through his dear, dirty neighborhood, and waves his magical pimp cane at anyone he can help. Why? Well, because they need help, and he can help them.

He stops a feuding couple before they slip into domestic violence. He gets somebody’s disabled vehicle running again. He saves a child who is nearly hit by a car. He sees a heavy woman stuck in a chair and, with a wave of his magical pimp cane, frees her by giving her the body we’re sure she’s always wanted. The song playing is a composition just for the film by Nat Dove called “Ghetto Street U.S.A.” It’s a fantastic and infectious tune, with a name reflecting the filthy streets upon which Petey strolls and a groove reflecting the better place he’s making it with every step.

And Petey just loves it.

The happiness on Petey’s face truly belongs to Moore. There is a genuine love for where his life has taken him. It works for the character, but works even better for the man playing him.

Both of them are just so damned lucky, aren’t they? They were somewhere, with some unfulfilled desires and dreams, and then, overnight, they were granted a power they never had before. The power to make things better. For themselves, sure, but also for others. And maybe it can’t last forever. Maybe the end is a hell of a lot closer than either of them thinks it could be.

But for now, in this moment, unable to conceive of something they can’t actually have, it must feel pretty great.

There are dedicated comedy moments involving the magical pimp cane, I should add; it’s not all good deeds. In one scene, the cane starts vibrating for no discernible reason. Petey lets it lead him like a dowsing rod to a small trash can in the club’s restroom, and then it stops. Inside is a bomb planted by the rival club owners.

There’s some physical comedy as Petey & co. are in so much panic they can’t get the bomb out the door. They end up throwing it into the bed of a watermelon truck so that chunks of the fruit can rain down for blocks around.

Petey uses the magical pimp cane frequently enough that Satan begins to wonder if the guy loves his magical pimp cane more than he loves the terrifying demon daughter of Hell.

He confronts Petey on Earth to remind him of their deal, and to politely suggest that he not attempt to renege on it.

Satan lets him keep the magical pimp cane a little bit longer, which makes Petey even more confident he’ll be able to wriggle out of the agreement. As long as he’s got his magical pimp cane, after all, he’s able to fight back. He assures his friends — who question Petey’s wisdom in agreeing to marry Satan’s daughter — that he will solve the problem and keep them safe. None of them really seem to believe he can conquer the whole of Hell but, well, it’s not like they have any choice but to help him try.

This is where another difference between Petey and Dolemite is made clear. Dolemite is a natural hardass. He’s undefeatable. Someone may outthink him, but he’ll turn up in the end to rip their guts out with his bare fists. He is, as the sequel had it, a human tornado. A genuine, according-to-Hoyle force of nature.

Petey is the opposite. He absolutely fights well, but he never truly gets the upper hand until he has supernatural assistance. He can’t rely on brute force to solve his problems. Someone may beat the shit out of him, but he’ll turn up in the end to outwit them. Petey is more of an artful dodger.

So what does he do to outsmart Satan? He agrees to a time and place to meet The Devil and let himself be dragged to Hell.

…and then he kidnaps and drugs a hobo to take his place.

It’s a comedy, I know, but Petey Wheatstraw isn’t quite as good at painting its hero as flawed as it should be. Perhaps it’s just because Moore is that fucking likable.

In one scene he brushes a child’s hair and he does it too hard (or perhaps the kid’s hair got stuck in the comb) and the child starts crying. It’s not an act; it’s a kid expressing pain. And we still can’t dislike Moore, even as we watch him make a little boy cry.

Moore is a fun, loveable, charming son of a bitch, and while nobody will watch the scene and be glad he accidentally made a child weep, it’s also true that nobody will watch that scene and judge him for what happened.

And so when he kidnaps and drugs a hobo who can take his place in Hell…it’s something that in most movies would be a clear signal that our hero is either desperate or despicable. Or probably both. Here, it just causes us to detach; we know Moore is doing this because Moore thinks it’s funny. He’s still playing Petey, but we’re reminded that a comedian is making this movie and he’s taking us down what he hopes will be an amusing detour.

Once we know how things wrap up — the hobo wakes up in a car full of demons and gets away — it is indeed pretty funny! But Petey sure does creep into the territory of doing evil shit. He has one of his friends create a perfect replica of Petey’s face — where would we be without friends? — and they use it to disguise the sedated hobo.

In full fairness to our hero, he doesn’t expect his ruse to permanently fool The Devil; he just needs the hobo to take his place long enough for Petey and his friends to flee the city and start new lives somewhere else. It’s likely he expected the Devil to release the hobo once the trick was revealed.

Regardless, we’re thinking about it too much. Petey Wheatstraw gets away with us not believing its title character to be an asshole because its reality is fragile enough that we can pierce it at any point.

The Devil — being The Devil and all — is not amused. His demons storm Petey’s club and they ultimately kidnap Nell, played by Ebony Wright, Petey’s friend, assistant, confidant, and paramour.

Wright is great, and she’s another example of an actor to whom Moore is more than happy to cede the spotlight. A running joke in the film is that she apparently runs a phone sex service; Petey is staying temporarily at her house and she answers the phone with a smokey, seductive voice, dropping it the instant she realizes the calls are for him.

It’s funny, and Wright is a good enough actor that Nell comes across as well rounded and human. When she’s in the Devil’s grip, it’s believable that Petey would give himself up…or at least agree to a climactic rooftop showdown.

The Devil — as measured and calm as he’s always been in this film — keeps his end of the bargain once again. He does indeed let Nell go when Petey shows up. He’s a fair Prince of Darkness, which is probably what enables Petey to overpower him.

Still in possession of the magical pimp cane, Petey is able to fight back against the demons. Eventually, he even downs Satan himself.

He picks the old man up and drops him off the building, where he bursts into flames upon impact.

That’s it. Petey triumphs, because of course he does. He’s our hero, and good always defeats evil.

Except for the times that it doesn’t. This is one of those times. Petey climbs into the back of an idling car, thinking it’s his friends ready to start their new lives. Instead it’s Satan and his daughter, and that’s where we leave Petey Wheatstraw, in a freeze frame before he’s dragged directly to Hell.

It’s not a bad ending. It’s surprising enough that a comedy ended in failure for our hero, especially a failure that’s essentially played straight. I do wonder if — even only hypothetically — Moore and Roquemore had discussed a sequel. Leaving Petey here, suspended in this moment, would certainly leave the door open.

From the opening monologue of this film we know Petey is indeed in Hell looking back on what got him there, but that doesn’t mean a second film can’t see him trying to outwit The Devil yet again.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s our loss that Petey Wheatstraw doesn’t continue into another two or three or ten films. It gets to stand on its own as a one-off oddity that feels even more valuable because it only happened once.

For this brief stretch of 90 minutes or so, Moore reached the peak of his cinematic output. Maybe a sequel would have been better. Maybe it would have been exactly as good. Most likely it would have represented a step down. Probably a funny one, probably a creative one, but still a step down.

On its own, Petey Wheatstraw gets to stand as a solid achievement. Moore will always be known for Dolemite, and I’m not arguing that his legacy shouldn’t focus on that film and character. I will, however, argue that Petey Wheatstraw is long overdue for a serious critical reappraisal. Both Dolemite films had heart, but Petey Wheatstraw has soul. There’s very little to laugh at here, and plenty to laugh with.

It won’t change any lives, but it will make the people who see it happier, at least for 90 minutes. Moore waves his magical pimp cane and helps us all.

The spell may be temporary, but it’s a Hell of a lot of fun while it lasts.

Rule of Three: Dolemite (1975)

Welcome back to Rule of Three, an annual series in which I take a look at three related comedy films during the month of April. FOR FOOLS. And speaking of fools, I hope you are excited to listen to me, the whitest naturally occurring substance, discuss the work of an integral figure in black culture.

I know we all enjoy a good laugh (for instance, the two or three times I’ve said anything funny), but I do want to be serious about something up front: I am not the person to talk about Rudy Ray Moore. I will talk about him, but I am no kind of authority on what he represents, on his impact, on the lives he’s changed or the careers he’s inspired.

So why am I writing about him at all? Because I’m going to discuss him as an entertainer, a comedian, an actor…basically the way I’d discuss any other figure in popular culture.

Making that clear up front is important, because the last thing I want to do is mislead anyone into thinking I believe I have any right to tell Moore’s target audience what they should think of him. The films I’m going to discuss this year — three films starring three Moore characters — were not made for me. I know that. The audiences for which they were made are certain to have different takeaways. I hope I am fortunate enough to hear those takeaways from folks in the comments. My biggest hope every year is that writeups such as these will inspire people to think about these films, discuss these films, or seek out and watch these films for the first time.

I am not and will never pretend to be an authority on anything I cover, particularly in this trilogy. (ALF, of course, being the exception; I am the world’s leading authority on ALF and it’s fucking garbage.)

None of this is to suggest, however, that I don’t have my own personal connection to Moore and his work. It is only meant to suggest that my connection will likely be different from anything he intended, and I’m fully aware of that.

Dolemite is not a very good film. In fact, by nearly every measure, Dolemite is an awful film. The acting, the writing, the direction, the cinematography, the fight choreography, the audio mixing, the editing…every mechanical element of this film hovers somewhere south of competence.

And yet it’s fantastic. I don’t mean that in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Rather, I mean that Dolemite is good in ways almost completely separate from what we usually admire in films. Dolemite succeeds on its charm and earnestness…exactly as Moore himself did.

For an extremely brief period, Moore — through sheer force of will — managed to become a movie star. He wasn’t much of an actor, a looker, or a fighter, but his films would treat him as all three. That’s okay; films are fiction. What matters is how much or how little we, in the audience, accept that fiction. Moore was such a charming son of a bitch that it was, and remains, surprisingly easy.

Dolemite has a plot only in the sense that one scene follows another rather than plays over top of it. There’s precious little logic and even less narrative. With better writing, it’s the sort of thing we could call a character sketch. As it stands, I don’t think we know anything more about Dolemite by the end of the film than we do in his very first scene: He’s a black man with a sense of humor who commands respect, even from the warden of the jail that holds him.

In flashback, we learn that Dolemite was arrested by corrupt cops who planted drugs in his vehicle, framing him as the source of the drugs that have increasingly become a problem in their jurisdiction. While he’s incarcerated, though, the drug crisis has only worsened. His friend and confidant Queen Bee bargains with the warden to get him released so that he can stop the true drug kingpin and restore peace to the neighborhood.

That sounds suspiciously like a story, so it says something that Dolemite never allows it to feel like one.

Let’s jump backward in a time a little bit, to when Rudy Ray Moore was a younger man (and amateur standup comedian) working at Dolphin’s of Hollywood. That record shop — founded in 1948 by black entrepreneur John Dolphin — forged its own path forward. Rather than stocking only the most popular records, Dolphin’s deliberately stirred up interest in black musicians, with an emphasis on radio-unfriendly jazz and up-and-coming R&B groups.

Dolphin’s stirred up this interest with its own radio station and label; if the groups it supported weren’t getting airplay elsewhere, Dolphin’s would change that. Live broadcast performances, interviews, and record debuts were common ways that Dolphin’s created demand (and found an audience) for innumerable artists who might not otherwise have been discovered.

It was also open 24 hours, which attracted a different clientele than a standard 9-to-5 businesses would. This is probably how Rudy Ray Moore found Dolemite.

I say “probably” because that’s how Moore told it, but Moore himself was as much a character as Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw, or The Disco Godfather were. After all, he was a schlub. He had big dreams of breaking into the entertainment industry, but he was already in his 40s and couldn’t get it through his thick skull that black entertainers had relatively little success in finding wide audiences.

Truly talented individuals might — might — be able to break through, but Moore was not one of those individuals. He had heart and he had drive and he had commitment. But that wasn’t enough. It would get him nowhere. It couldn’t have gotten him anywhere, and he would have been wise to abandon his dreams of stardom.

Then again, he was working for Dolphin, a man who single-handedly carved out his own place in the music industry. The existing landscape didn’t allow for certain things to flourish, so he created his own landscape where they could. This can’t have been lost on Moore, as he ended up doing exactly the same thing.

Moore was floundering as a standup comedian. He got work, but never found an audience. His career should have ended there, but instead he self-funded and distributed his own comedy albums, more shocking than clever, sold on their provocative titles, cover art, and routines. He recorded them without knowledge of what he was doing, with cheap equipment in his own house while a group of friends served as the enthusiastic audience he hadn’t yet been able to find.

Then he met a homeless man named Rico, who stumbled into Dolphin’s once — or many times, or maybe Moore met him near Dolphin’s — and caught Moore’s attention with long, rhyming stories of a badass called Dolemite. Or maybe he was begging for change and people were asking him to do the routine as Moore passed by. Or maybe he stood in the middle of Dolphin’s and a rapt audience assembled around him, clapping and hollering for more.

Whatever actually happened, Moore adopted the persona as his own. We could call this creative theft. Perhaps we even should. But within those stories Moore found inspiration. He took a name and some details and around them he built a character.

That character was everything Moore was not. Gorgeous. Dashing. Witty. Dangerous. Irresistible to women. Talented beyond belief. Beloved wherever he went. And so Moore used the character in his routines. And on his albums. And Dolemite found the audience that Moore himself always wanted. Moore had carved out his own landscape, and he made sure to ride that momentum all the way onto the big screen.

That’s how a pudgy, mumbling no-name with a perpetual squint and no dramatic bone in his body became a sexy, kung-fu fighting, righteous action hero. All because he never accepted that he was ever the former, and believed against all logic that he was destined to become the latter.

Dolemite is the culmination of everything Moore wanted for himself, and its success — the fact that other human beings paid money to watch him and his friends mess around in a sloppy passion project — was tremendously vindicating to him. Moore struggled to get by, but success sure came easily to Dolemite.

Okay, so, what in the world is this movie? Well, it depends on which scene you’re watching. It’s a prison film, a revenge picture, a romance, a comedy, an action film, a performance film, a tale of morality…

…in short, it’s everything Moore figured he could put into a movie, and since nobody making it expected it to go anywhere, nobody encouraged restraint.

And that lack of restraint is glorious. It leads to conflicting moments of characterization, incompatible tones, and brilliant madness. Dolemite is the ultimate badass who neither looks nor acts like one.

I suppose the best way to describe the character is as a tough guy with a strong moral compass. He’ll take great amusement in murdering unarmed men, but only if they’re bad unarmed men. He’s a force for good, even if he is an especially bloodthirsty one.

Dolemite’s quest is threefold: getting revenge for being framed, reclaiming his night club, and stopping the flow of drugs. All three of these roads lead to one man: Willie Green, played by director D’Urville Martin.

As you can probably tell, Green as a character feels reverse engineered; he exists to be and is defined entirely by being a direct nemesis for Dolemite. Anything Dolemite has, he takes. Anything Dolemite wants, he prevents. Anything bad that happens to Dolemite — no matter who actually does it to him — can be traced directly back to Willie Green, pulling the strings.

It seems as though Dolemite would have his hands full, taking down a man whose every waking moment is spent brainstorming new ways to fuck Dolemite over, but really our hero is in no rush. He catches up with old friends. He hangs out with a downtrodden junkie (seemingly for the sake of helping him get his life together, but Dolemite doesn’t seem to mind much when the guy is gunned down in front of him). He stops dead in his tracks when fans recognize him and performs full comedy routines for their amusement.

Neither Dolemite nor Dolemite has any sense of urgency. Nobody ever feels the need to kick things into a higher gear, and whenever things are kicked into a higher gear they’re kicked right back down again, sometimes in the space between frames. There isn’t rising and falling action, in other words; there’s starting and stopping action.

So why did anyone like this movie? Baby, you already know the answer.

Rudy Ray Moore.

The guy is so winsome and full of personality that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of him. It’s easy enough to see why he wouldn’t have had a clear path to stardom, but it’s even easier to see why people would want to be in his orbit.

Moore attracted people, and not just as hangers-on. He elevated them, trying to give them a chance to live their dreams as well. He recruited Lady Reed, another struggling comedian with whom he shared a bond, to feature on his albums and in his films. He gave D’Urville Martin a chance to direct, after the man spent years trying to break into the industry with almost exclusively small roles and background work. He took community theater leader Jerry Jones and made him a regular collaborator, as well as forged a creative partnership with Cliff Roquemore. He provided early roles to actors such as Hy Pyke, Ernie Hudson, and Keith David.

For many of these people, their work with Moore would be the high point of their careers. It would represent the closest they ever came to living their own personal dreams, and Moore did this for them because he wanted to.

Moore wanted to be a celebrity, but he didn’t want to be the celebrity. He wanted an empire full of satisfied collaborators, and if that took him sinking what little money he had into a condemned hotel just so they’d have a place to shoot their movie, so be it.

The ramshackle feel of the movie never lets up. It was and is clearly the work of a team with more ambition than talent, but that ambition is infectious. At many points you can easily envision the film Moore had in his head. The distance between what he wanted and what made it to the screen leads to more than a few chuckles at Dolemite‘s expense, but it’s admirable that Moore went for it at all.

I’m thinking of a few scenes in particular. In one, Dolemite gets into a kung-fu battle with the police. (As must we all.) He’s ultimately arrested, but not before showing off his martial arts prowess…which doesn’t seem to exist at all to anybody watching the film in the real world.

Then there’s the scene in which Dolemite and Queen Bee look on with pride while their personal army of sexy karate babes trains. In the film that existed in his mind, this surely led to an incredible action showdown. Dolemite even interrupts their training to inspire them with a rousing speech in which he lets them know just how important their confrontation with Willie Green will be. In the film we got, they do next to nothing.

And of course there’s the wonderful scene toward the end of the film in which Dolemite finally corners Willie Green and reaches into his chest to rip his guts out.

In Moore’s mind this was surely a giddy, gory highlight. In reality Willie Green makes a face and falls over, dog food on his tummy.

Throughout, though, it’s very easy to get swept along for the ride. Your belief is never suspended — oh, heavens no — but it’s easily ignored. And it’s easily ignored because if idiotic moments like these are the price to pay for a Rudy Ray Moore movie, it’s well worth the expense.

Moore is without question what makes Dolemite worth watching and what gives it whatever amount of staying power it still has. He’s a fascinating man, deluded without being delusional, magnetic without being attractive, admirable without being particularly good at anything.

Well, I shouldn’t say that he’s not particularly good at anything. While his acting may be terrible, his delivery is second to none.

Certainly honed over the course of years on stage and comedy records, Moore knows how to give every line bite. They’re not always great lines, or even memorable lines, but he digs into them with a relish that can’t be denied.

Nobody could deliver a line like, “You no-business born-insecure junkyard motherfucker,” better than Moore.

Ditto “You rat-soup-eating honky motherfucker!”

“Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game,” is a line I dare you to try to deliver with any degree of sincerity. Yet Moore sells it. He convinces us that Dolemite believes in himself enough to pull it off because Moore believes in himself enough to pull it off. Moore delivers it the way only he could, turning something almost daringly unclever into a legitimate applause line.

That’s part of what made Dolemite succeed. No human being could have watched this film in theaters and believed they were watching a good movie by any traditional measure, and that was part of the fun. Moore didn’t deserve to be up on that screen, but there he was, literally living a dream. If that’s not inspirational, what is?

Moore was cutting his own path. Every theater that showed Dolemite to an audience was evidence that the little guy could win. No, the film wasn’t great, but Moore was so obviously thrilled to be making it. That was the real success of Dolemite.

I won’t attempt to speak for anybody who would have watched the film back then. I was not the target audience and was quite a long way from being born. But when you think about disenfranchised classes, when you think about struggling artists, hell, when you think about people who just want to be liked…how could they have seen Moore’s film as anything other than a triumph?

The man attempted, for a long time, to find success by the traditional route. He plied his trade as much as he could. He worked hard and tirelessly to find an audience. And he got nowhere.

So then he went a different way. He broke the rules. He found his own road to the top. And everybody who went to see Dolemite in theaters saw a man who forged his own path onto that screen.

He didn’t have to play by anybody else’s rules, which is good, because those rules are what kept D’Urville Martin having to beg and be thankful for the smallest roles. Those rules are what kept great jazz musicians off the airwaves until John Dolphin created a space just for them. Those rules are what kept people who looked, acted, and presented themselves like Rudy Ray Moore as far from the mainstream as possible.

And yet, here he was. Dolemite. Fucking up motherfuckers. Nobody would give Moore the life he wanted, so he wrote and produced it himself.

How many members of that audience went home and wrote their own jokes? How many were inspired to create characters? How many went on to become comedians and musicians and actors and writers? Maybe more importantly, how many of them left after the movie feeling just that much more convinced that they could accomplish what they had been told they couldn’t?

I’m asking these things rhetorically, but Moore — and Dolemite — provably did have influence on the larger entertainment sphere. Moore has gone on to be considered the godfather of rap, with artists in that realm pointing back to Dolemite for their inspiration.

Those aren’t hollow claims. In the film, Dolemite performs two complete routines: “Shine and the Great Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey.” Both of them are long, rhyming tales, and while only one of them gets musical accompaniment, they are both delivered with a critical, driving rhythm. They’re knowingly bawdy and crass, relying on shocking the audience with language that brings one crowd closer as it consciously pushes another away.

These sequences are the highlights of the film, even though (or perhaps because) neither of them have anything to do with what’s happening. Dolemite stops so Moore can do some road-tested routines, and I’m glad it does, because it’s what he’s great at. He commands this material, and like an engaging preacher it’s impossible not to be hooked by the performance, whether or not you care for what he’s actually saying.

His was an approach that artists such as Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes would later refine and build upon, and they’d repay the artistic debt by inviting Moore to guest on a few tracks. In fact, in Moore’s later years, much of his income was made from guest appearances in the works of grateful musicians, comedians, and directors.

But we’re jumping too far ahead. For now, here, in 1975, Moore was at the absolute top of his game. He had given himself a career when nobody else would, and he had proven that there was a larger hunger for outsider art like his than anyone actually in the industry would have guessed.

What would he do next?

Well, he’d do what he was already doing. What he’d always been doing. He’d keep finding ways to get himself in the spotlight, and the success of Dolemite, for the first time, meant that people might actually start opening doors for him.

While I don’t think it’s possible to oversell Moore as the film’s clear selling point, I do think it’s worth mentioning that he doesn’t hog all of the best material for himself. That other material might not be successful, but his intention to give others a chance to shine is clear.

For Lady Reed — whose career he attempted to launch but who ended up with roles only in Moore’s own films — he provided an emotional spotlight near the beginning of Dolemite. Unlike most other characters, Reed’s Queen Bee is asked to actually act as opposed to deliver a joke, deliver a threat, or fight someone.

Here, as she successfully negotiates Dolemite’s release from prison, she cries thinking of the damage the drugs have been doing the neighborhood while Dolemite has been gone. Granted, we cut from a shot showing her with a dry face to another shot in which she has long streaks of tears, Darkplace-style, but she tried and Moore gave her room to try.

Then there’s Jerry Jones, who plays FBI Agent Blakely. As much fun as it is to watch Moore push back against and eventually triumph over corrupt white cops (and as cathartic as it must have been for him to do it), Blakely gets to do it from the inside. Two forces of good — one on the streets and one in the office — get to corner corruption and take it out with their own two hands. Dolemite was always going to be the hero, but Moore didn’t let him be the only one.

Jones also wrote the screenplay — in close and obvious collaboration with Moore — and Moore brought him back to do the same for the sequel, The Human Tornado. He reprised Blakely in other Moore films as well.

My favorite performance comes from Wesley “West” Gale, another actor who had to make do with a career full of almost exclusively small parts (almost exclusively uncredited small parts) who got a true and much-deserved spotlight in Dolemite.

Moore cast him as the incendiary Reverend Gibbs, a womanizing, firearms-fencing preacher who hedges his bets by supporting both sides in what he expects will be a coming race war. To his parishioners, his support of the police is an act. To the police, his support of his parishioners is an act. I won’t pretend Gale is a fantastic actor, but he does an excellent job with the material.

Moore even hands him one the film’s biggest laughs as the police walk in on him mid-sermon and he shifts direction on a dime.

“We’ll create our own war, and we don’t need no redneck mother…oh yes Lord, mothers are the best friends we have!”

Then there’s a great scene later on when Dolemite shows up to the church to press Gibbs for information, and several corpses sit up in their caskets to point guns at him.

It’s a setup that makes exponentially less sense the more you think about it, but it’s a cool idea and an irresistible visual, so it’s in the film. One might expect the ass-kicking Dolemite to start flipping caskets and kung-fu kicking guns out of hands, but instead he admires Reverend Gibbs’ successful trick. There’s a mutual respect. Dolemite lets Gibbs win this round.

Don’t let me oversell Dolemite as a non-stop thrillride. This thrillride makes frequent stops. Things happen in every scene, but everything happens so damned slowly.

You forget you’re watching a movie at times and drift into daydreams. You could probably edit the film down into an incredible, giddy 60 minutes; instead it’s an often-tedious 90 minutes. But those highlights do exist, and they’re fantastic.

All of this elevates (or at least separates) Dolemite from being a vanity project. As much as Dolemite as a character would from this point on define Moore — both in terms of his career and in the way he conducted himself in interviews and for the press — he was still just a regular guy at heart, and on some level he’d always know that. He was equal parts resourceful and lucky, and he wanted that to pay off for others as well. He didn’t care about being the richest guy in the casino; if he had his way, everybody would be hitting jackpots.

And, sure, that’s an easy metaphor, but it’s also pretty accurate. Moore did hit the jackpot with Dolemite. I suspect he would have seen the film as a roaring success simply because it was finished and made it to theaters, but instead it hauled in more than $12 million on a budget of around $100,000. $100,000 was a lot of money to stake on a film that everybody advised him not to make, and $12 million was one hell of a payout.

Moore, now, had the ear of wider audiences. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world was in his hands, but for the first time he was in a position to wonder what he could do next, as opposed to wonder what he had to do to get people to pay attention.

I vividly remember hearing about Dolemite for the first time. I had a friend in high school named Chris, and he recommended a lot of things to me that I ended up enjoying. (Most notably Mr. Show, which he assured me I’d love but which I didn’t watch until several years after it ended. That was my loss.)

I have no clue how he came across Dolemite. The internet was in its awkward early years, with easy access to weird films not yet being one of its selling points. He didn’t recommend Dolemite, but he told me about it, and a bunch of us listened to him describe it.

We thought it was the funniest thing imaginable. In my mind — possibly also in Chris’ description, but maybe not — Dolemite was a cheap Shaft knockoff. A mindless cash-in that aped something popular. Something that may have offered some degree of amusement but which certainly wouldn’t have any merit. (Perhaps weirdly, Futurama seemed to confuse the two as well; in “Jurassic Bark,” Professor Farnsworth paraphrases a line from the Shaft theme song and then says, “It’s dolomite, baby!”)

We couldn’t stop laughing at the character named after a mineral, and how impossible it would be to take him seriously. I remember checking for it several times in video rental stores and coming up empty. I remember giving up on finding it, knowing that it would never be able to live up to the bad movie that existed in my head.

I was right. As wild and unpredictable as Dolemite is — and, it must be said, as impressively unfocused — it was not the third-rate Shaft wannabe that I expected. It was instead one of the most confusing and beguiling B-movies I’ve seen, and also one of the most inspirational.

I didn’t get to see it until the excellent Vinegar Syndrome released it in 2016. They restored and rereleased a number of Moore’s films, actually, which immediately made Dolemite seem like it might be more important — and more worthy of rediscovery — than I had given it credit for being.

I’m glad I got to see it in this form, with a loving restoration that certainly makes the film look sharper and crisper than Moore ever got to see it while he was alive.

Vinegar Syndrome targets a different audience than Moore did, but the experience is still a joyous one. We’re watching it today as an artifact, a preserved, imperfect piece of cinema history. But we — film collectors so white our hearts pump Twinkie filling — are peering through a window into a house that was not built for us. We may be able to appreciate what we see, in our own way, but it isn’t ours. There’s a difference between gazing upon and living within.

We get to look back on it and admire what Moore managed to accomplish as we reflect on the echoes of Dolemite through the years. In 1975, though? Dolemite‘s audience wasn’t reflecting. It was looking forward.

Dolemite found Moore the audience he always knew he deserved. He appreciated them giving him a chance. In 1976, he’d repay their faith with The Human Tornado, a sequel to Dolemite that was better in every way. It lost none of Moore’s ramshackle charm, but it was smarter, funnier, better acted, and better produced. The director, Cliff Roquemore, worked so well with Moore that he stuck around, sometimes unofficially, to keep Moore’s films on track.

I thought about covering The Human Tornado instead, simply because it’s the superior production, but Dolemite is without question the more culturally significant film. What I will say is that you should seek out both movies, and I will add that you should seek them out for very different reasons.

Next week I’ll cover the movie he (and Roquemore) gave audiences in 1977. That’s Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, and it’s the great movie so many of his collaborators knew Moore had in him.

Announcing: Rule of Three 2020!

Hoo boy. Ready?

For this year’s Rule of Three — a series in which I review three related comedy films beginning April 1 — I am focusing on the works of Rudy Ray Moore.

I have a few reasons for doing this. Moore is a massively interesting figure, and a culturally important one as well. He’s a funny guy whose films I enjoy. His movies are ones I think are worth paying attention to. The recent biopic Dolemite is My Name got me interested in revisiting his work. I could continue, but let me instead give you something that emphatically is not a reason for doing this: I am not doing this because I have any business doing so.

It’s important to me that I make that clear up front, because for many people Rudy Ray Moore represents something that he cannot represent to me in the same way. He is a crucial data point in the history of black entertainment. Does that mean I can’t write about him? Of course not. Does that mean I have any right to speak about the importance of his work with authority? Of course not.

I’ve hesitated to cover with any thoroughness works about the black experience. Whether it’s The Boondocks or Get Out or, now, Rudy Ray Moore, these are things that I love…but I love them as a member of the audience, which is much different from understanding them from experience. I have the right to discuss (and the interest in discussing) them from the former perspective, but when something is so clearly charged (racially, politically, sexually, etc.) it feels like I would be doing the work a disservice to not view them through the appropriate lens.

I’ve linked to this before, and I’ll link to it again. It does a better job of explaining why I do not intend to rise to meet that challenge than I ever could.

I am going to cover Moore this year, but know that I do so with the full knowledge and with the direct confession that I am not the man to give these films their due. I will view them through the lens of a guy who loves watching and writing about movies. If you think these films deserve more than that, you are correct. They do. And I’d be behaving disrespectfully if I even pretended to be able to give them more.

I hope you enjoy the reviews — well, duh — but I also hope I get to hear from folks in the comments or elsewhere about what I’m missing, what I’m getting wrong, what I’ve been raised to overlook and to ignore. For anything you can learn from me, there are 10 things I could learn from you.

Here is the posting schedule. Dolemite, as I write this, is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You’ve got two weeks to check it out before my review goes live. Also, watch Dolemite is My Name on Netflix. I’m sure I’ll reference it but the main reason you should watch it is that it’s excellent.

April 1: Dolemite (1975)
April 8: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)
April 15: Disco Godfather (1979)

And with that decidedly serious introduction to movies about kung-fu-fighting prostitutes, magical pimp canes, and freshly roasted babies, I look forward to seeing how this particular experiment goes.

I’ll see you April 1.

Rule of Three: Purple People Eater (1988)

Though my Rule of Three theme this year has been films based on novelty songs, I haven’t actually talked about how these films use their own source material.

I don’t mean that I haven’t talked about how they adapted their source material — I won’t fuckin’ shut up about that — but rather how these films use the actual songs upon which they were based.

In Harper Valley PTA, for instance, the Jeannie C. Riley version of the song plays in its entirety during both the opening and closing credits, bookending the movie…which itself contains scenes and characters so true to the song that lyrics are lifted entirely.

It’s the “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em” approach, and I actually kind of like it. The original song brings us into the world of the movie and then out of it again, with the closing credits giving us a chance to reflect on how the film expanded on the germs of characterization the song gave us.

That’s not all, though; throughout the movie, various instrumental arrangements of “Harper Valley PTA” play as diegetic background music. We hear different versions everywhere from Alice’s beauty parlor to the merry-go-round Stella rides with Willis. It’s a really nice and creative touch that winks at the audience without being unbearably cutesy.

In Convoy, the original song is both a recurring presence and completely absent.

During certain establishing shots and scene transitions, “Convoy” kicks in like an omniscient narrator, only we don’t hear the original lyrics. I’m almost certain it is C.W. McCall who performs the rewritten verses, which lends the rewrite an air of legitimacy, but I can’t be sure. (McCall is obviously credited for the song in the film, but whether or not that extends to the new verses, I don’t know.)

The film-specific verses aren’t great, but until I listened to the song again in comparison I wasn’t sure they were film-specific. They feel very true to the sound, mood, and quality of the original song, and each reader is welcome to take that observation in whatever spirit they please.

We never hear the original “Convoy” at all, and we don’t get any kind of chorus. Perhaps they cut it because the “rockin’ through the night” part would have reminded people that they forgot to include a scene in which any such thing happens. Instead, this version of the song describes which characters are where at any point in time, which seems unnecessary considering the film also uses subtitles to establish that information, but what do I know.

So Harper Valley PTA included the original song and some instrumental variants and Convoy rewrote the lyrics to better fit the action on screen. Two interestingly different approaches.

Now we have Purple People Eater, which treats its original song like suppressed scripture. It is an incantation so powerful that it at first summons and later banishes a horrifying demon.

I somehow doubt that was the movie’s actual intention but, well, here we are, kids.

Purple People Eater was written and directed by Linda Shayne, who I think it’s safe to say wouldn’t recognize narrative if it fell from space and moved into her garage.

Shayne has been in a number of films as an actress, but as a director she might be most famous for the notorious Flyin’ Ryan, perhaps the only magic-shoes movie that has no interest in letting its character use the magic shoes. She’s also done two other films (Little Ghost and The Undercover Kid), so I think it’s likely we’ll get a Linda Shayne retrospective for some future Rule of Three.

Purple People Eater represents Shayne at the absolute peek of her abilities. It’s more coherent, more creative, and more charming than any of her other works. Also, it is not coherent, creative, or charming at all.

Still, though, it’s worth remembering as you experience Purple People Eater that it was somehow all down hill from here.

The movie stars a young Neil Patrick Harris, in the role for which he will certainly be remembered. He plays Billy, a boy we’re constantly told has no friends despite the fact that…you know…we meet some of them. He also brings home lots of animals — which seems like the kind of thing you’d only establish if it were going to come into play at any point, but I’m no Linda Shayne — and has talent in art and music.

Our story begins with Billy’s mother, father, and older sister all leaving immediately and forever, because they have nothing to do with the movie we’re watching. I guess it’s nice that we’re not keeping a bunch of characters around for no reason, but why introduce them in the first place? The film would play out exactly the same if these three characters had been dead for years by the time the story began.

Billy and his little sister Molly are left in the care of Grandpa Ned Beatty, in the role for which he will certainly be remembered. Beatty, in a decision that makes us pity grandpa by proxy, takes the film seriously. It’s probably an overstatement to say he gives the performance his all, but he certainly does try to find and occupy a space in grandpa’s mind that makes any kind of sense. Purple People Eater genuinely did not deserve the effort.

When I refer to a space in the character’s mind that makes any kind of sense, I’m referring to the fact that we’re supposed to simultaneously accept that grandpa believes the undisguised space alien living with him is just some kid from Billy’s school and that grandpa is not intellectually disabled.

And Beatty…actually kind of strikes that balance. Not always, and not especially well, but that’s more the fault of the film than his performance. Beatty manages to be just doddering enough that you buy his confusion and lovable enough that you excuse the (many) moments during which you can’t buy it. He also plays grandpa as a goofy enough figure — I mean this in a good way — that he might not care that the kid is actually an alien; grandpa is having fun and that’s what matters.

The reason grandpa is having fun is that he’s connecting with Billy. We’re explicitly told that grandpa doesn’t live far from Billy’s family — it seems to be a quick couple of minutes by car — so I’m not sure why they never connected before. Neither of them seem reluctant to start a relationship; it’s more like they just waited for a film crew to show up before they bothered.

Overcome by his proximity to youth, grandpa decides to live life to the fullest by…painting his walls.

Billy helps him do this — you might think the movie temporarily forgot Molly exists, but there’s a major scene later centered around the fact that nobody supervises her at any point — and grandpa invites the boy to check out his old records.

Billy becomes the only child in 1988 to rapturously read the names Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Chubby Checker off a bunch of records. Seriously, this movie seems like it should take place decades earlier, when a child might actually know these musicians, or have heard their songs anywhere outside of commercials for The Sizzler.

He puts on “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and dances around. Kid fucking loves “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”

You would be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with the fucking Purple People Eater. Seriously, we’re about a quarter of the way through this movie about a puppet monster from space before the puppet monster from space shows up.

It finally happens when Billy plays Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” on the record player. Grandpa probably would have seem him come to Earth, too, if he hadn’t passed out from the unventilated paint fumes hours ago.

Within the universe of this film, Wooley was less some guy who sang a monumentally shitty novelty song and more a divine prophet issuing clear and detailed warnings of things to come.

At least, that’s how Shayne seems to treat the song. It is a holy text from which she shall not deviate. Everything Wooley sang 30 years ago must come to pass this night.

Verily, the Purple People Eater comes out of the sky, as Wooley foretold. He lands in a tree, because that’s what the lyrics say he did. He hops down to the ground and plays “a crazy ditty with a swingin’ tune” through the horn on his head, just as we were promised in the song. He comes to Earth to “get a job in a rock and roll band,” again, as Wooley so immaculately predicted.

And, yeah, Billy does start a band later but you’d think maybe the Purple People Eater would have visited The Rolling Stones or something instead, since they’ve already got their operation up and running, but whatever.

Shayne has every right to adhere to or deviate from the lyrics as she sees fit, but if “Purple People Eater” the song exists within the universe of the film, it has to be a prophecy, right? It can’t just be coincidence. This thing isn’t sort of like what we hear in the song; it’s line for line doing and saying the things the song said he would.

And, of course, there’s the description of the beast. He has one eye and one horn. He has wings to fly. He’s purple. Musical notes float out of his horn when he plays music so you know he isn’t hiding a kazoo in his asshole.

But there’s one detail that’s notably excluded. Have you spotted it? I’ll give you a hint: it takes up two thirds of the film’s own title.

The Purple People Eater — for that’s what this is, what the song is about, what the film is called, and what the creature is constantly referred to as being — doesn’t fuckin’ eat people.

So, okay. It’s a kids’ movie. I don’t expect the Purple People Eater to spend the film picking bits of Neil Patrick Harris from between his teeth. But Purple People Eater never even addresses this.

There are a thousand ways you could resolve this discrepancy and still remain family friendly. You could have the Purple People Eater try to eat a person and get told that that’s not appropriate on Earth. You could have him say that he usually eats people but he’s currently on a diet. You could reveal that the word “people” refers to something different on his planet. Fruit, say.

But you have to explain it. You can’t call a movie The Flying Bus if the bus doesn’t fly. You can’t call a movie Digging a Hole if no actual or metaphorical hole is dug. And you can’t call a movie Purple People Eater if the purple thing isn’t eating people.

The movie even seems to give itself a reason to acknowledge this, one way or the other, as Billy and his grandpa are both covered in purple paint when the thing arrives. And later in the movie the Purple People Eater quotes the “eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine” bit from the song. So whether you think the Purple People Eater is a purple thing that eats people or a thing that eats purple people, you’re going to come away disappointed.

Anyway, the kid has an alien friend now, and grandpa is immediately convinced it’s a child in a costume. Which is fair enough at first.

But then the child moves in with Billy. And never goes home. And never takes the costume off. And plays music without an instrument. And sleeps hanging upside down. And can’t seem to say much aside from “Billeeeeee” and Sheb Wooley lyrics.

Everybody just seems to go along with it. They meet the Purple People Eater — neither he nor Billy come up with a better Earth name for it than “Purple” — assume it’s a kid in a costume, and never question any part of it.

Well, actually, the nosey neighbors the Orfuses do question it, but only so they can be ignored. The rest of the town is perfectly fine assuming this is just some kid whose parents never ask about him or want him back. Also he walks like a full diaper is an integral part of the costume they think he’s wearing, so they should at least offer to change the kid.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what Shayne has to do to get the Purple People Eater into Billy’s life. What matters is that he’s there and together they can have all kinds of exciting, silly adventures.

Or the alien can play gin rummy with old ladies. Whatever. I give up.

Yes, the plot is that a very old woman named Rita, played by Shelley Winters in the role for which she will certainly be remembered, is going to lose her home to the evil landlord Mr. Noodle.

In fact, Mr. Noodle is so evil and such a landlord that a lot of old people are going to lose their homes. I think you will agree this is a job only Doogie Howser and a store-brand Cookie Monster can handle.

To the relative credit of Purple People Eater, Mr. Noodle is indeed a bad hombre. Harper Valley PTA and Convoy both had villains who lagged far behind the heroes in acts of villainy, but here Mr. Noodle is clearly the dick of the piece, putting profit ahead of the happiness and safety of the elders who rent apartments from him. He even shows up to Rita’s birthday party just to let her know she’s old and poor and will shortly be homeless.

Rita, anxious / scared / depressed, collapses upon hearing the same news she’s heard several times before in this film, and the paramedics show up.

Grandpa asks one of them if she’ll be okay, and the paramedic’s tone is clearly negative. “The most important thing right now is that she want to live,” says the paramedic, which is one hell of an out for him. If a patient dies he can just say, “He didn’t want to live, I guess. I thought maybe he did but now we see he didn’t.”

The unwashed alien crawling with space diseases visits Rita in the hospital with a card that says I LOVE YOU. Rita says she loves him, too.

Purple People Eater is the only space-puppet movie in which the extraterrestrial travels millions of light years to fall in love with Shelley Winters.

For a movie about a boy and his blob, there’s precious little alien content. Billy bonds with his grandfather, which does not require an alien. Billy starts a band with his friends, which does not require an alien. Billy helps some old people die where they are instead of somewhere else, which does not require an alien.

The only real “alien” thing the Purple People Eater does is go fucking berserk in Chuck E. Cheese.

It would be impossible to figure out what’s going on here if the film didn’t outright tell us. It’s just the Purple People Eater making noise while a whole bunch of shit flies around. Thankfully, Shayne has the kids explain that the Purple People Eater ate some chili peppers and now is hiccuping.

So add “leveling a restaurant full of children because he ate something hot” to the list of things he does without anyone doubting that he’s a kid in a costume.

And that’s…pretty much it for alien hijinx. He does use his alien powers to rescue Molly, which is good because everyone else forgot she was in this movie.

Honestly, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Hiccuping Pepper Eater, this ends up being far and away the best scene.

Molly is played by a tiny little Thora Birch, in the role for which she will certainly be remembered. I have a very low tolerance for child actors, not because they’re terrible (though they are uniformly terrible) but because I never think they’re as cute as the directors want me to think they are.

If a kid stumbles over his line reading, I don’t care. He’s a kid. He’s dumb. Move along. But if the camera lingers on him or a scene drags on too long because I’m supposed to be charmed by some little idiot who probably doesn’t even realize he’s in a movie, I get sick of him fast.

A child being a less-than-stellar actor is an understandable real-world limitation in film. But a child meant to charm the hell out of an audience is a director’s conscious decision.

All of which is to say tiny little Thora Birch is genuinely charming and adorable, probably because Shayne just lets her be an actual kid.

The rescue scene is the perfect example. In it, Longfellow the dachshund wanders out onto Billy’s second-floor balcony. Molly calls after him, but he doesn’t come. She crawls into view wearing a dinosaur hat and Jesus Christ if only every child in movies were actually this cute.

I have no idea why she’s wearing it. It’s never explained or even mentioned. And that’s perfect. Was she terrorizing Longfellow? Was she just wearing a dinosaur head because she’s a kid and has nothing better to do? I almost wonder if tiny little Thora Birch just wanted to wear a dinosaur head and Shayne let her.

Don’t let that sound dismissive, because “Shayne just let her” is a massive compliment, as we’ll see.

Everyone gathers around and panics because Molly is about to fall to her death, so the Purple People Eater flies up next to her and…that solves everything somehow. Fuck that.

The good part is that Ned Beatty and Thora Birch have a little exchange afterward. And I’m referring to them by their real names for a reason.

THORA: The dog wanted to go on the balcony.
NED: That’s a bad doggie, Longfellow.
THORA: Longfellow?
NED: Bad doggie.
THORA: I like him.

And holy hell does my cold heart melt.

See, that wasn’t in the script. I don’t say this with any knowledge, but I do say it with complete confidence.

I say it because it’s too real. We hear Thora Birch slur her way through lines like any other child actor elsewhere in the film. Here, she’s just talking to a kindly old man, a kindly old man who happens to be really good with children himself.

Ned Beatty is being a silly grandpa figure to a little girl who, for that moment at least, really does see him as one.

All of that is to Shayne’s genuine credit, and I wish we got more of this here and in her other films. Because kids are cute, but only if they’re given the chance to be actual kids. The moment you give them a script and direction, they’re no longer being themselves. That should be obvious. They’re suddenly acting…something they don’t actually know how to do.

But get Ned Beatty to riff with a child, and let that child be a child, and you get a perfect little adorable moment like that one. Purple People Eater is one of the worst films I’ve watched for this (or any) series, but it also brought me what might be my favorite moment.

It’s also deeply amusing to me that tiny little Thora Birch has such a lovable, perfect moment with Ned Beatty and not with the giant alien puppet designed specifically to appeal to children, but hey, what can you do.

Of course that’s not what the movie’s about so let’s get back to that.

Billy starts a band with all the friends we were told he doesn’t have, including Dustin Diamond, in the role for which he might actually be remembered. They’re immediately great at playing songs thirty years older than they are, and they become locally famous.

At one point in the movie someone hires them to play at his daughter’s wedding, and he ends up loving their act so much he offers them a contract because he’s a record company executive. Quite why he didn’t hire a band he represents and which he would already know would put on a good show rather than take a chance on a bunch of grade-schoolers, I don’t know. Why the contract never comes up again I know even less.

They band is called The Purple People Eaters, and their front man is the Purple People Eater, who they refer to as the Purple People Eater, but when Billy suggests they play “Purple People Eater” the Purple People Eater wigs out and tells him no; it’s not time yet.

A band named The Purple People Eaters that doesn’t play “Purple People Eater” is just marginally less stupid than a movie called Purple People Eater in which no people are eaten, but I don’t think Shayne realizes either of these things.

What does the Purple People Eater mean about it not being time to play “Purple People Eater”? I have no idea. Billy does suggest they open the set with it, so maybe his concern is that it’s too early in the show, and it would be better as an encore or something? It’s not clear. But the only time the band does play “Purple People Eater” is at the very end of the movie, when the Purple People Eater briefly becomes the Tasmanian Devil and then zips back to his own planet, which he never got around to telling anyone about and which the kids never expressed any interest in.

So maybe the idea is that playing “Purple People Eater” causes him, somehow, to leave, and that’s why he didn’t want the band playing it earlier in the film? I have no idea. Nobody has any idea.

Mr. Noodle announces to all the old people that they have to be out of their homes by Labor Day so he can turn the apartments into a puppy decapitation facility.

The Purple People Eater decides to host a Live Aid-style event called Save Our Seniors, intended to raise enough funds and awareness to keep them where they are. He schedules it for…Labor Day.

So, that would be too late, right? Fortunately for them, the movie forgets its own timeframe, and the old people are still in their homes the day of the concert. They must have some serious fucking faith in the Purple People Eater not to even box up their belongings after being evicted, but whatever.

We learn that the Purple People Eater only sleeps hanging upside down in the shed so that Mr. Noodle can kidnap him. In their struggle they bump into a jukebox, which plays “Rockin’ Robin,” a surprisingly upbeat little ditty for a scene in which a real-estate mogul beats the hot shit out of a space alien.

He takes the Purple People Eater to Hide-Out Wallies, a good choice as it’s apparently the only bar in the world that closes at night.

Then Mr. Noodle takes a massive step beyond almost every other movie villain in terms of competence by not leaving his hostage.

I mean, the sight of this guy strapping the Purple People Eater to a pool table is every bit as disturbing as you’d expect it to be, but still, massive kudos to Mr. Noodle for not going home with the assumption that everything will turn out fine.

Of course, Labor Day morning comes and the Purple People Eater gets away by untying himself and leaving, a plan it evidently took him around 12 hours to come up with.

He then punctures Mr. Noodle’s tires with his horn, which looks about as sharp as my fingertip, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Noodle; he just drives the car anyway and the flat tire has no impact whatsoever on his ability to chase the Purple People Eater around.

The Purple People Eater steals someone’s ’55 Thunderbird and turns on “Rockin’ Robin,” which I think is because Shayne ran out of licensing money but which is extra funny to me because it seems like the Purple People Eater heard “Rockin’ Robin” while he was getting curb-stomped by Mr. Noodle and thought, “Man, this song is actually really good,” making a note to check it out later.

The fact that the Purple People Eater can drive a car doesn’t bother me. Actually, it does, but I want to stop writing about the movie, so let’s take that as read. But it does remind me that we never saw his spaceship. Did he even have one? How did he get to Earth without one? And if he did have one, where the hell is it? Is it just orbiting the planet with its hazard lights on?

And actually, the box art for the movie has Ned Beatty and Shelley Winters driving a car through outer space, which I’m suddenly deeply angry doesn’t happen in the film because we needed more scenes of them sitting on couches saying, “It sure sucks dick being old.”

While all this is happening, the kids and grandpa run around town, desperately searching for the Purple People Eater, because there’s no way they can play covers of early rock music without some midget in a Grimace costume twerking.

For no conceivable reason whatsoever, the Purple People Eater drives his stolen car into an automatic car wash.

This is seriously Mr. Noodle’s lucky day; all he has to do is drive to the exit and wait for…

Oh. Mr. Noodle is a fucking moron and drives through the car wash behind him, fully aware that they will both be moving at fixed speeds and that the Purple People Eater will have a head start when they’re back on the road.

Not that that matters, because the car wash malfunctions somehow. Mr. Noodle, you complete tit.

The police arrive not to arrest Mr. Noodle for kidnapping or to arrest the Purple People Eater for stealing a car or to arrest them both for destroying an automatic car wash, but to give the fucking space monster a police escort to Barely Alive Aid.

Come to think of it, even if they’re cool with him stealing the car, aren’t they concerned that he’s driving? They think he’s a 10-year-old in a costume. Who are these cops?

Purple People Eater builds to a climactic scene in which the entire town joins the Purple People Eater and The Purple People Eaters in a rousing singalong of “Purple People Eater.”

Oddly, for a climactic scene, nobody seemed to put any effort into making it. The editing is absolutely terrible, with characters “singing” without moving their mouths, and keeping their mouths closed while lyrics somehow come out of them. There are hard edits at various points in the song that clearly jam different takes together without regard for where in the song we actually were when we made the splice.

And, perhaps most strangely, nobody seems to fucking know how the song goes. Whenever we cut to someone in the audience singing, it’s like they’re reading a sloppily written line off of a cue card.

Even Little Richard seems like he never heard this song before, completely unaware of the cadence or melody.

Oh, did I not mention Little Richard is the mayor of this town? Neither did the movie, but that’s okay, because this surprise cameo is a genuine highlight.

Quite what Little Richard has to do with “Purple People Eater” I have no idea, but he’s here, and he’s not Little Richard playing Mayor Goodheart or something; he’s just Little Richard who is also the mayor.

Little Richard is a treasure and I will hear no words against him. He’s one of those rare entertainers that has endured as a figure of coolness throughout his entire career, and the dude is nearing 90 as I write this. He’s got a perfect mix of talent, quirk, and winking ridiculousness that makes him a perfect fit for a scene like this. Parents like him because they’re in on the joke, and kids like him because he’s a massive, silly presence.

He’s fucking great is what I’m saying, and as soon as he hears Mr. Noodle wants to throw all the old people out of their apartments, Mayor Little Richard takes a vote of all the concert attendees and declares it illegal for old people to be relocated ever, anywhere, for any reason, until the Earth is consumed by the sun.

It’s…not how local government works, but it’s just ridiculous enough that it’s the only scripted moment in the entire film that I enjoyed.

Actually, that’s damning with faint praise, so let me rephrase that: I enjoyed it so much that I genuinely wish every movie would end with Little Richard showing up and declaring that the film’s conflict is over.

The fact that Mayor Little Richard shuts Mr. Noodle’s shit down the moment he hears about it does sort of mean Save Our Seniors was thoroughly unnecessary and Billy or grandpa or Shelley Winters or Longfellow could have placed exactly one call to city hall and been done with this weeks ago, but there’s no time to think about that because the Purple People Eater is leaving forever.

Billy learned to believe in himself, I guess, and grandpa learned to…paint his house? And…

I don’t know. Nothing happened. The fucking puppet hiccuping was the most exciting thing in the movie.

But at the same time, it was kind of great.

There are a lot of bad films out there. You know that. I know that. Years ago we’d just have to walk along any given aisle in a Blockbuster Video, and today we only need to scroll through any given category in Netflix or Hulu to find hundreds of them.

They’re awful. They’re cash-ins. They’re complete wastes of time.

Until you find one that’s magical in its awfulness. One that makes you laugh harder than any comedy you’ve ever seen. One so monumentally incompetent you don’t tell your friends, “It sucked; don’t bother,” but rather plead with them to watch it because they wouldn’t believe how gloriously awful it is unless they saw it with their own eyes.

That’s what Purple People Eater turned out to be.

Harper Valley PTA was misjudged. Convoy was forgettable. Purple People Eater is a golden turd.

Almost nothing in this movie works, but everything fails in perfect harmony, creating a filmwide sort of anti-logic that manages to hold together in the strangest ways.

Characters appear and disappear. Plot threads are raised and abandoned. Non-issues are treated as calamities and serious concerns are brushed aside. The movie stops dead for several minutes so Chubby Checker, in what seems to be a fantasy sequence completely disconnected from anyone fantasizing, can lip sync to “Twist it Up.”

And it’s all just god-damned perfect.

I was interested this year in finding out whether or not a novelty song could be successfully adapted into a full-length feature film. Harper Valley PTA right out of the gate proved it could, at least hypothetically. But Purple People Eater proved it’s often much more fun to ride a moronic concept directly into the ground.

We are impressed when we see complex machines running smoothly, but damned if we aren’t far more fascinated by the one that explodes in brilliant flames.

This is a movie that is thoroughly enjoyable to watch fall to pieces.

I love you, too, Purple People Eater.

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