Former BFC/A Student Assistant Elijah Pouges is a writer, rapper and music producer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is often thinking about simulacrum and the interactions between sonics and image. You can find his music at brzraps.com.
In this essay Pouges examines what it means to hear as well as see Michael Schultz’s films.
The films discussed in this post will screen at IU Cinema with director Michael Schultz present. Check out events in the “Young, Gifted and Black” series HERE.
If Michael Schultz is known for making any film in the ‘80s, that film probably would have been the Berry Gordy-backed martial arts showdown in New York City, The Last Dragon. However, we should think about and listen to another Schultz work produced in the ‘80s: Krush Groove (1985), which depicts the founding of famous hip-hop label, Def Jam Recordings.
Schultz, hyperaware of sonics when creating a film, directed two others in which music is not at the forefront of the viewer’s attention, but is of great importance: Cooley High (1975) and Car Wash (1976). Each film is representative of a style or type black popular music, namely soul, disco and hip-hop. When viewed in chronological series as a visual triptych, Cooley High, Car Wash, and Krush Groove, create a space where music is not only important to the film as technical device, but each film serves as a sonic archive, a thoughtful listening collection, that chronicles, preserves and document the music of each respective era.
Though Cooley High was produced in 1975, it is set in mid-1960s Chicago. The opening sequence showcases the city, edited to “Baby Love,” the 1963 song by Diana Ross and the Supremes. The song alludes to the youthfulness of our protagonists and grounds us in the era. Historicity is suggested not only through scene and set design, but sound as well. The music reflects what would have been played in an urban center like Chicago, while Chicago-as-character serves as an archive for the music to sit within. Schultz’s attention to diegesis in sound is integral to how the music is “preserved.” The most noteworthy example occurs during a scene in which a fight breaks out during a house party. Slow soul continues to play, even as shenanigans ensue, leading to an all-out brawl. The music calmly continues to waft through the environment, helping create a true-to-life scenario where the sonics don’t reflect visual chaos, but rather convey an instance of sonic dissonance.
Next in series, Car Wash preserves 70s’ disco using the various types of motion and fluidity depicted en scene; the opening sequence can be read against the eponymous Rose Royce track with which the film begins. The music, written primarily by Norman Whitfield and performed by Rose Royce, points to the Motown/Whitfield style of disco being produced, which would have been inescapable in a locale like Los Angeles. The film necessitates this type of music due to the film’s shared title with the pop song, and the soundtrack being produced and performed by two parties working in artistic tandem.
Last in the triptych of sonic documentaries, Krush Groove stands out as the most straightforward example. The fictionalized retelling of the inception of Def Jam cannot work without the music of the soundtrack. The neorealistic use of musicians as actors, e.g. a young LL Cool J, further blurs the lines between reality and fiction, while working to exemplify the film as a visual archive for the music. Krush Groove served as a filmic introduction of hip-hop culture to the mainstream; as such, it would stand that the film serves as an important piece of sonic documentary for hip-hop music at large.
Through intentional viewing in series – Cooley High, Car Wash, Krush Groove – one can see how Schultz has not only created films that reflect visual aesthetics of black American history, but also how and what types of music were prevalent during each respective period. The historicity of the music remains a theme central to each film in series, and soundtrack serves as more of a focal point than musical underscoring Soul, disco and hip-hop anchor each film in a historical era, while the films serve as sonic archives for future viewers’ discovery and reflection.
Join the Black Film Center/Archive and Indiana University Cinema as we celebrate the 50-year career of filmmaker Michael Schultz, Nov 8-10, 2018.
Hayman, C. (2013). Melle Mel in the Megaplex: Postmodern Performance and the Hip-Hop “Real” in Krush Groove & Beat Street. African American Review, 46 (1), 117-132. doi:10.1353/afa.2013.0016
George, N. (2005). Hip hop America.. New York, NY: Penguin Books.