Can You Dig It?

Title: Can You Dig It? : The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Soul Jazz Records

Formats: 2 CD set, 4 LPs (vol. 1-2)

Catalog Number: SJR CD 214
Release Date: September 29, 2009

The period of the late ’60s and early to mid ’70s was a time of social change in America, when previously marginalized and ignored groups were making their voices heard. Coinciding with this change in the country at large was a drastic economic change within the motion picture industry. With revenues plunging, companies pursued previously unexplored avenues of revenue, one of which came to be known as Blaxploitation films.  Featuring largely black casts and often primarily black crew members, these films brought out black audiences en masse. This was the first time Black Americans were able to see themselves on screen in non-subservient roles outside a few films here and there. Black audiences flocked to theaters to see stories told from their perspective, and heroes with features (and problems) akin to what they saw and experienced daily.

Another extremely notable aspect of Blaxploitation films was the music accompanying them. Artists like Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Willie Hutch provided music scores that in many cases have held up stronger than the films themselves. Can You Dig It?, a two-disc set released by Soul Jazz Records, brings together a generous offering of music from a wide selection of films produced during the Blaxploitation era. While songs like the themes from Shaft and Superfly are infamous and have been played and heard consistently since the ’70s, this set offers selections from other films with lesser known soundtracks.  Tracks include Joe Simon’s “Theme from Cleopatra Jones,” Dennis Coffey’s “Theme from Black Belt Jones,” Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” from Hell Up in Harlem, Willie Hutch’s “Theme of Foxy Brown, and “Sweetback’s Theme” by Brer Soul (a.k.a. Melvin Van Peebles)  and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Following is the official trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Courtesy of Xenon Pictures):

There are no real misses in this set as all of the songs have stood the test of time. The set also includes offerings from R&B/soul acts not known primarily for soundtrack material such as Martha Reeves, Solomon Burke, and Booker T & the MG’s. Overall, the collection offers a sampling of the era’s best musical works and serves as a good starting point for those interested in Blaxploitation era music.

Ironically, the real star of this set is not the music. As with many Soul Jazz releases the true gem is the liner notes by Stuart Baker that accompany the discs. Can You Dig It? comes with a 96 page booklet that speaks to the socio-political climate in Hollywood that produced these films and soundtracks, giving a much needed perspective that helps us understand why the works themselves are so significant. The booklet also provides profiles on the actors/actresses, crew members, producers and musicians who were instrumental in creating the soundscapes that accompany a very unique (and regrettably) all too brief period of cinematic history.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Movin’ On Up

Title: Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Artist: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions
Label: Hip-O Records
Catalog No.: B0010887-09
Producer: Reelin’ in the Years Productions
Release date: May 6, 2008

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Impressions’ debut single, “For Your Precious Love.” A new DVD from Reelin’ in the Years Productions celebrates both the music of the Impressions and the theme of black self-determinism that carried Mayfield into his solo career. Featuring over twenty complete performances and interviews with Altheida Mayfield, Carlos Santana, Chuck D, and former Martin Luther King, Jr. aide Andrew Young, this documentary tells the story of Mayfield’s part in the struggle for civil rights and social equanimity during the 1960s and ‘70s. Directors David Peck, Phillip Galloway, and Tom Gulotta highlight Mayfield’s artistic and personal strength, including his inspiring perseverance after a 1990 lighting accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Curtis Mayfield’s performances alone are worth the price of the DVD. Consistent with its other projects, the production team for Movin’ On Up carefully places each complete song in chronological order. It uses archival interviews with Curtis himself and new interviews with those who knew him best, contextualizing these performances within their appropriate milieu of social protest. This text- and context-centric approach to complete tunes constitutes the greatest strength of the documentary. For those who lived through this era, a music-only menu feature allows viewers to see only the performances sans commentary.

The music-only option may in fact be the saving grace of the film. Notwithstanding some tender moments with Mayfield’s widow Altheida and some inspiring footage from his late immobile years, the editing on this project is atrocious. Clunky transitions and poor sound editing leave too much negative space in the soundtrack and inconsistent sound from one interview to the next. The painfully sharp bass player on “Check Out Your Mind” betrays the quality of the other performances and, as a comparatively inconsequential tune, it should have been left out. This kind of editing might be permissible were it not for the wonderful sound on the vast majority of the performance footage. The pacing of the interviews becomes lethargic toward the end (which came at least thirty minutes too late), and the commentary after “The Makings of You” really should have landed on the cutting room floor.

For teachers of popular music, these critiques should not prevent placing a prompt acquisition request at the library. This DVD provides beautiful footage from the three major Mayfield eras: his prowess as a young songwriter both with and without the Impressions, his social critiques during the Civil Rights Movement, and his funkier solo and Blaxploitation film scoring work. The interviews with Mayfield offer an insider’s view of this controversial film genre, which could open up some challenging discussions about race in the classroom. Moreover, the performances could easily be combined with other artists’ music to re-contextualize Mayfield’s work within the broader social themes of his time.

As filmmakers, Reck and company may not be emerging Herzogs or Pennebakers. However, this documentary provides appropriate context for contemporary consumers of Mayfield’s music. Bad editing aside, the performances on this collection have been lovingly and entirely included between relevant (even if not illuminating) commentaries. For now, this is the best available resource on the Curtis Mayfield because it captures the essence of his art: a peaceful insistence that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of race.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing