Monday, May 24, 2010

Super Soul Brother (1979): or, Wildman Steve is Wild, Man


Sometime back I reviewed a home-grown blaxploitation flick/folk art cinema entitled The Guy From Harlem (1977), which chronicled the exploits of P.I./Kung Fu Master/International Security Contractor Al Connors. (Read that review here, if you know what's good for you!) While not by any stretch an accomplished piece of filmmaking, The Guy from Harlem was not without its peculiar charms, one of which was a scene-stealing turn in a supporting role by one Steve Gallon as local crime lord Harry Dubaul, who enlists Connors' aid against the more powerful and eeeviler crime boss Big Daddy. Charismatic, profane, and absolutely irrepressible, Gallon made such an impression that I quickly scampered to his imdb page to find out where I could see more of his idiosyncratic dramatic stylings.

As it turns out, despite a 40-year career as a DJ, media personality, stand-up comic and recording artist under the stage name "Wildman Steve" (according to this affectionate if sparse tribute site, Gallon was "the first black comedian to chart on Cash Box and the first to sell a million records"), he only appeared in front of the camera in three films: the aforementioned Guy from Harlem, the legendary Rudy Ray Moore vehicle Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law, and the movie under discussion today, Super Soul Brother, aka The Six-Thousand Dollar Nigger.* Released in 1979 and directed by Rene Martinez Jr., who also helmed The Guy from Harlem, Super Soul Brother is Gallon's only starring role, and clearly designed as a showcase for his bombastic comedic talents.

*Don't blame me, folks--I didn't come up with the title.

We Are the Untamed

After an absolutely priceless opening credits sequence, we find ourselves in the offices of independent researcher Dr. Dippy (Peter Conrad), a dwarf mad scientist with a spectacularly bad German accent who is working on a kind of Super Soldier Serum that will give its subject enhanced strength, agility, and invulnerability. Dr. Dippy's research is being funded by small-time crooks Jim and Bob (Lee Cross and Benny Latimore), who hope to use it to knock over a strip-mall jewelry store that inexplicably has ten-million dollars' worth of diamonds in its safe.

Alas, the course of SCIENCE never did run smooth, and while the serum does what it says on the tin, it also has a rather unfortunate side effect: exactly seven days after being injected, every super-powered lab rat in the trial group has invariably dropped dead. While Dr. Dippy and his comely research assistant Peggy (Joycelyn Norris) keep working to find "the neutralizer" (apparently through test-tube mixing trial-and-error), Jim and Bob grow impatient to see a return on their $6000 investment. Unwilling to take the shot themselves and trust the diminutive doc to save them in time, they decide to recruit "a wino out the ghett-o!" to be their short-lived strong man.

Dr. Dippy: Giant of SCIENCE

Of course their unwitting guinea pig is Wildman Steve (Gallon), a down-and-out homeless drunk prone to mouthing off to other hobos and getting beat up by wandering gangs of toughs. When Bob picks him up and promises him an apartment, money, and all the food he can eat, Steve is too astonished to say no. He's taken back to Dr. Dippy's lab, examined by Peggy, and told to rest up and get healthy for the upcoming experiment.

As in The Guy from Harlem, each scene in Super Soul Brother seems mostly improvised around
a central idea, be it exposition about the serum, details of the heist plans, or the preliminary examination of the subject. However, here the supporting characters' dialogue serves the dual purpose of bookending Steve Gallon's frenetic physical comedy and shameless stereotype baiting. It's nothing short of astounding: Wildman Steve makes Mantan Moreland (King of the Zombies) look like Morgan Freeman. Add the fact that Gallon seems to have only two comedic settings--Full-Bore Insanity and Unconsciousness--and you've got a one-way ticket to Over-the-Over-the-Top Town.

Q. How do you tell an oral thermometer from an anal thermometer?
A. Taste.


As a brief and relatively tame example, when Gallon is being examined by Peggy in the lab, she asks for his name for the waiver forms (?). He replies, "My name is Steve: S-T-V, all capital letters!" He does a Scared Mantan Moreland impression when Peggy proposes an anal thermometer probe ("You gonna stick THAT pole...in MY ass-hole?"), then screams to the doc, "This girl thinks my asshole is a Tunnel of Love!" After this ordeal, though, he quickly makes up with Peggy, admitting, "My 20/20 tells me you is a Mighty Mighty!"

Incredibly, it just gets worse from there. Given his own apartment by his benefactors (the same apartment Al Connors used in The Guy from Harlem--I'd know that orange shag carpet anywhere!), Steve is further treated to the services of lady-of-the-evening Addie Williams, who says she's there to do "anything he wants." He responds by having her cook him dinner (hilarious?) and then by requesting something special he remembers from his childhood, when his mother would put him in the bath and give him a good "butt-washin'!" After this joke is exhausted (it takes a while), he tells the girl, "Before I got down on my luck, I was a playa! I used to make my money making love to WHITE WOMEN!" He then opens his robe to show her his equipment, which is apparently just as impressive as the stereotype would have us believe.

Not the reaction he was hoping for.

His later seduction of virginal Peggy is even less restrained from a comedic standpoint, as he literally jumps up and down with excitement over "gettin' that cherry!" Later, he amazes her with his formidable lovemaking skills. Sample dialogue:

"Don't hurt me, Steve, don't hurt me! That ring on your finger!"
"That ain't no ring on my finger, baby...that's the watch on my wrist!"

As expected, Steve Gallon does almost all of the comedic heavy lifting in the movie, though we do get a couple of borderline surreal interludes with Dr. Dippy and his lover, the Amazonian burlesque-girl-gone-to-seed, Monica (Wild Savage--seriously), who refuses to sleep with the Doc until he buys her the diamond pasties he promised her. Instead the two exchange backrubs and play chess, with Dr. Dippy all the while dressed like a middle-aged female spa-goer. Get ready for a sight you can't un-see:

Check and Mate

The rest of the movie is basically a series of vignettes constructed to give Gallon the opportunity to get as wild as he wants to be, which is plenty wild, believe me. Eventually he's given the injection, leading to more jumping and wide-eyed face-pulling ("Is he a monster? Is he a wildman? Is the n*gger crazy?" Bob helpfully narrates), gets his revenge on the gang that roughed him up, and out of gratitude to his new friends agrees to play a "practical joke" on the jewelry store clerks by walking out with the safe (under cover of a bizarre diversion courtesy Dr. Dippy and Monica). The effects here are as low-rent as possible (a cardboard safe that doesn't even budge the car into which it's loaded), and the fight scenes are choreographed with less skill than a backyard wrestling tournament. (The fights in The Guy from Harlem are spectacular by comparison.) Of course the silly but good-hearted Soul Brother eventually tumbles to his friends' nefarious schemes, and with Peggy's help tries to stop them and find the neutralizer before he's another dead superhero.

It's a maxim that there can be too much of a good thing, and in comedy this is doubly true, it seems to me. Limited to five minutes of screen time in The Guy from Harlem, with a specific role to play and certain dramatic strictures in which to work, Gallon showed himself a memorable, scene-stealing screen presence, a shining light in the otherwise dim-bulb cast. He obviously needed those constraints, because without them, he's really too much to take. (Think the difference between Jim Carrey's performances in Earth Girls are Easy and in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Then amplify that difference and add race humor.) Though Gallon does manage to wring a few laughs out with sheer energy and ebullience, most of the time he's so far over the top he's absolutely impossible to connect to.

Unfortunately for Bob, his trigger finger was not only itchy, but ticklish.

The rest of the cast are mostly forgettable, and unsurprisingly many have only this movie in their acting credits. A notable exception is Peter Conrad as Dr. Dippy, who went on to assay such roles as "Midget with Lady" in Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse, "Midget" in Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, and "Mule Train Driver" and "Sandy's MC" in Porky's and Porky's II: The Next Day. Conrad is no Peter Dinklage, but at least his chronic bed-head hairstyle and atrocious German accent add a little texture to the character.

As for the direction, it seems Rene Martinez Jr. had his best work behind him at this point (i.e., The Guy from Harlem, faint praise as that may be). The pacing is terrible, though to be fair if we shortened Gallon's comedy bits to manageable lengths and focused on the plot, the movie would likely be 30 minutes long. The script clearly never got beyond outline form ("Say something about Steve needing to get some rest. Let Steve go for a while. Cut to..."), and most scenes are filmed from a static mid-range shot that does nobody any favors. The whole thing is even more amateurish than Martinez's other flick, and lacks that film's sense of energy and purpose. And yes, of course there's a boom mike cameo.

It's a little blurry, but it's up there.

After watching Super Soul Brother, I still like Wildman Steve, but I'm more acutely aware of his dramatic limitations--more perhaps than either he or his director were. As a supporting character he's a stick of comedic dynamite. However, strap a movie to his back, and what you've got is a bomb. (See what I did there?) If you like dwarfs, mad scientists, pre-PC race humor, and a good ol' fashioned butt-washin', I'm still not sure I'd recommend watching Super Soul Brother. It's not surprising that the promised sequel (we fade out on Gallon in a t-shirt that reads, "This N*gger is Coming Back!") never materialized. Though I certainly wish Gallon had done more character work before his death in 2004, I still must sadly give his sole starring effort a paltry 1 Thumb. He deserved better--but then again, so did the audience.


4 comments:

The Duke of DVD said...

Oh Vicar, you do know the key to my heart. You had me at "dwarf mad scientist", but "old-fashioned butt washin'" is just the icing on the diminutive cake!

I need to watch this just to see how what should have been an instant 3 Thumb's Up instead careened off the cliff in a fiery wreck of 1 Thumb Up.

prof. grewbeard said...

that's a long way to go for one thumb but i bet your review is much more entertaining than the film itself, still i don't think i'd kick a vhs copy of Super Soul Brother out of bed for eating crackers(so to speak)...

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke--As you well know, one man's trash is often another's slightly less-trashy trash, so perhaps the sheer force of personality displayed by Dr. Dippy would be enough to pull you through. I would urge caution, but I know such warnings are lost on a cinematic adventurer such as yourself. :)

@Professor--It ended up being a much longer consideration than I had imagined at first; perhaps my verbiage was all backed up from a week without release. Thanks for reading it anyway!

Anonymous said...

there was a sequel that came out you just can't find it now. It was called Aint That Some Honky or something like that.

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