DOLEMITE and his "all-girl army of Kung-Fu killers" hit Blu-ray with a vengeance courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome's sterling restoration.
Framed by the cops for possession of narcotics (and stolen furs), pimp Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore, THE MONKEY HU$TLE) gets a chance at freedom when his partner Queen Bee (Lady Reed, PETEY WHEATSTRAW) and the prison's warden ("That rat-soup-eatin', insecure honky motherfucker!") inform him of his nephew's murder in a drive-by shooting, the increase in gun-running and violent crime in his old neighborhood – despite the efforts of the disingenuous Mayor Dale (Hy Pyke, BLADE RUNNER) to clean up the area – and their suspicion that members of the police force are in cahoots with competing pimp/crime boss Willie Green (director D'Urville Martin, the elevator man from ROSEMARY'S BABY). No sooner does Dolemite hit the streets than Willie Green's men are trying to kill him and dirty cops Mitchell (John Kerry, MEMORIAL VALLEY MASSACRE) and White are looking for any reason to put him back behind bars. When Dolemite discovers that Queen Bee had to sell his club "Total Experience" because of a debt to Willie Green and the inability to pay it thanks to Mitchell and White shaking down his girls (who she had to train in martial arts to defend themselves on the street), he sets about "fuckin' up motherfuckers" and getting back what's his. Fellow officer Blakely (the film's writer Jerry Jones, THE LONG GOODBYE) is more interested in investigating the dirty cops and provides Dolemite with some extra help. The shady Reverend Gibbs (West Gale, SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG) seems to be playing both sides as he encourages Dolemite to look a bit higher than the cops and Willie Green for the Fourth Ward's illegal activities. When Dolemite seizes back his club, he throws a big bash with his fighting girls waiting in anticipation of Green's retaliation.
Although a rather late entry in the Blaxploitation genre that is perhaps better known by wider audiences through the sampling of its highly quotable dialogue ("Man, move over and let me pass 'fore they have be to pullin' these Hush Puppies out your motherfuckin' ass!") and various parodies – among them the film BLACK DYNAMITE and MAD TV's "Son of Dolemite" – there really is nothing quite like seeing DOLEMITE. Technically ragged – with the cinematography of first-timer Nicholas Joseph von Sternberg (TOURIST TRAP) marred by inexperience, dipping boom microphones, flags, light stands, and the limbs of technicians at the edge of the frame – and rife with awkward performances and terribly staged fight scenes, the film is not a parody of Blaxploitation despite the casting of a comedian in the lead; and yet, it invites laughter beyond its shortcomings. Dolemite is like a living version of the characters in "Shine and the Great Titanic" and "Signifying Monkey" his spoken-word performances of traditional African-American tall tales in which downtrodden protagonists outwit, outsmarts, or gets the upper hand over their oppressors by sheer luck. Jones' scripting and Martin's uncommitted direction is such that the various injustices perpetrated on characters and their retribution fail to stir the viewer in the manner of some of the better examples of the genre (the showdown at the club is not the set piece it should have been), so it is really a matter of laughing with and at the proceedings. Admittedly more of an entertainer than an actor, Moore's engaging presence commands the film while the parts without him lag (even when Jones' cop and Dolemite's girls take their turn at kicking ass).
Released theatrically by Dimension Pictures – smalltime competitor to AIP and New World Pictures in the seventies – DOLEMITE came under the ownership of Xenon in the 1980s and their 1987 open-matte VHS presentation exacerbated the flaws in the rushed photography. The same master was later used for their 2002 DVD release (which otherwise attempted a special edition treatment with excerpts from the documentary "The Legend of DOLEMITE"). Vinegar Syndrome's presents a new 2K restoration from the newly discovered 35mm negative in two versions: 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 matted widescreen and the "Boom Mic" 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 open-matte pillarboxed fullscreen. While the fullscreen versions have been technically incorrect versions of a film meant to be screened at 1.85:1, they offer more than just the opportunity to laugh at the many times the boom mic dips too low into the frame (even matted properly it can be noticed though less frequently) along with intrusive light stands, flags, and even technicians. Watched before the widescreen version, the clash of colors in the costumes and set dressing (courtesy of Moore himself) seems more considered. When watching the widescreen version, one comes to appreciate first time cinematographer Von Sternberg's compositions with tighter close-ups looking more dynamic and once-distracting foreground or background props and architectural features adding a sense of depth to the compositions.
The photography is almost always technically competent – with the exception of the car chase scene in which the car hitting potholes or speedbumps seems to knock the camera out of register – and the most technically slick moments approach the gloss of AIP's somewhat better-heeled, more professional exploitation productions. Detail is improved over the old presentation throughout, with reinvigorated colors revealing the production design as more considered, the saturated colors of the wardrobe popping in the frame, and even an enhanced sense of the film's grittier settings and characters (Creeper's white T-shirt is not only worn inside out but also backwards with a logo showing through the back of it). The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is clean and crisp, with inconsistencies in the dialogue levels the fault of the original live sound recording thanks to that roaming boom mic (a couple scenes in tight settings are even miked from below). Optional English SDH subtitles are included and mostly accurate, although they sometimes get the tenses wrong in transcribing some of Dolemite's toasts in addition to a couple words (Shine stuck cork not a card up his ass to keep from sinking when he jumped the Titanic).
Selecting the audio commentary by film historian/Moore biographer Mark Jason Murray option from the special features menu plays the track over the widescreen version, but it can also be selected via remote on the fullscreen version. Murray - with the support of phone interview excerpts with Moore, Jones, and martial arts coordinator Howard Jackson (THE DELTA FORCE) – discusses Moore's humble beginnings as the son of a farm worker/coal miner in Arkansas, leaving home at fifteen and competing in talent contests before entering the army where he was in the special forces and also performed for the troops. Murray charts Moore's early experiences in the record industry with a number of LP singles, as well as work as a DJ, before his first comedy album EAT OUT MORE OFTEN. The Dolemite character stemmed from a toast – an African-American "tall tale", some of which have their roots in African folklore – performed to Moore and other record store employees by a local wino (Moore incorporated this and other toasts performed in the film – into his second album). Murray provides background on Moore's collaborators. Reed was a writer for Moore whose own career as a comedian he encouraged by producing two albums for her. Jones was a musician/dancer/model/pimp/nightclub owner turned Buddhist who was teaching acting at the time, and was introduced to Moore as a writer. Moore was impressed with Jones' progress on the script so he told him to write a role for himself. Theme song performer Ben Taylor also had a degree in culinary arts and fed the crew. The strain of the production with its weekend shoots and eighteen hour days for a film most of the cast and crew did not think would be released took a toll with plenty of meltdowns and violence (in addition to the neighborhood drive by shootings), and director Martin was only in it for the director's credit. Murry points out that Moore's greatest asset was the Dunbar Hotel which he was living in free at the time since it was condemned (they had to steal electricity and water). In the days before racial integration, the hotel was the heart of Los Angeles' jazz scene as the only place that would accept black guests. Murray also reveals that the title sequence – which he concedes is the slickest part of the film in terms of editing apart from the ill-chosen freeze frame to introduce Moore – features both shots from scenes deleted from the film as well as bits shot specifically for the credits.
The featurette "I, Dolemite" (24:01) features Murray rehashing much of Moore's beginnings and an overview of the production interspersed with old interviews with Moore – who admits that some people bought his comedy albums solely for their scandalous covers – Reed, and Jones along with newer comments by Murray, Taylor, friend Jimmy Lynch (HIGHWAY 61), actor Kerry, and Von Sternberg who initially came on as production manager through Jones and hired himself as cinematographer. Von Sternberg does address the boom mic issue, explaining that he thought the 1.85:1 frameline was absolute and did not realize that projectionists framed for more headroom, and that he like the rest of the crew may have been too exhausted to notice the boom dipping below the 1.85:1 frameline. The "To Be Continued" at the end the featurette seems to confirm that Vinegar Syndrome also plans to release the follow-up feature THE HUMAN TORNADO. "Lady Reed Uncut" (28:14) is the full interview from which the clips in "I, Dolemite" are derived. Reed goes into a bit more detail about her albums, traveling and performing with Moore, moving from middle-of-nowhere venues to classier joints but not really living it up since she was supporting a child on her own, and her belief that Moore never really received the recognition he deserved despite being a cult figure and self-made man. The "Locations: Then and Now" (1:47) reveals that a number of locations are still standing and have changed very little, while "Total Experience" is now a construction site. The film's hilarious theatrical trailer (2:55) and an equally entertaining one for THE HUMAN TORNADO (2:45) are also included. (Eric Cotenas)
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