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Disco Godfather

Disco Godfather(1979)

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Chitlin' Circuit comedian turned exploitation film icon Rudy Ray Moore got his start as a rhythm and blues singer during his stretch in the military. Peppering his song list with jocular, often profane patter, Moore eventually dropped music in favor of a career as a stand-up comic in the Redd Foxx mold. With half a dozen long-playing "party albums" to his credit (select titles include Below the Belt, The Second Rudy Ray Moore Album, and The Third Rudy Ray Moore Album: The Cockpit), Moore branched out to movies, eager to join the "blaxploitation" renaissance that flowered between 1971 and 1982. Plumbing his comic repertoire for Dolemite (1975), Moore starred as a smack-talking pimp and nightclub owner jailed on a trumped up charge and itching to settle the score with his false accusers. A hit on the grindhouse and drive-in circuits, Dolemite spawned a sequel, The Human Tornado (1976), which furthered the Moore aesthetic of trash talk, high karate, and sweet revenge. After contributing a supporting role to American International Pictures blaxploitation cash-in The Monkey Hustle (1976), Moore returned to form as Petey Wheatstraw (1977), a murdered comic who makes a deal with the Devil to avenge himself back upstairs.

With Moore's next film, Disco Godfather (1979), the supernatural had not fully been worked out of the equation - though it takes a few reels for that angle to make itself manifest. On the advice of his producing partner, Moore abandoned the sleazy silhouette of his Dolemite alter ego in a shot at something like respectability. Taking its cue from the mega-successful Saturday Night Fever (1977) - whose 15x platinum-selling soundtrack album merits a cameo as a cocaine mirror - Disco Godfather offers Moore as Tucker Williams, a former LAPD detective turned disco permitee whose NBA-bound nephew winds up in a psych ward after smoking angel dust. Vowing to ankle the local drug trade, the karate-kicking, crme de menthe-drinking Tucker takes it to the streets to marshal his buddies on the force and antidrug activists in common cause to "Attack the Wack." When his efforts become front page news, the Disco Godfather himself is made a target by a drug lord (James Hawthorne) posing as a legitimate businessman, who sends his hitmen into Tucker's Blueberry Hill hotspot to stop considerably more than the music.

Cherry picking plot points from a tick list of hit films from the early 70s, Disco Godfather avails itself of elements cadged from Death Wish (1974), Gordon's War (1973), French Connection II (1975), and even The Exorcist (1973), with Tucker's crusade to kick in enough doors to make a difference (never reinstated onto the police force, he nonetheless detains suspects, conducts raids, and subjects passersby to street corner pat-downs) contrasted with a hospital room vigil in which a grieving mother (Moore's longtime associate and frequent costar Lady Reed) and her minister attempt to save the soul of her comatose daughter by dint of exorcism. The use of (largely maladroit) martial arts gives Disco Godfather a bit of an Eastern flavor, augmented by expressionistic flashes of supernaturalism (drug-induced demons, haints, and Pucci Jhones as the vampiric Angel of Death) that would not be out of place in a Hong Kong horror film. Disco Godfather builds to a disarmingly pyrrhic victory for its hero, who gets his man but only in a drug-fueled mania, having been dosed with PCP by his enemies and driven to a schizophrenic rage. The film ends with a discomfiting freeze frame that seems lifted from, believe it or leave it, Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (US: The Conqueror Worm, 1968).

This change of pace role for Rudy Ray Moore derailed his further film career and with blaxploitation's fadeout he found it difficult to attract investors. When his old party records were discovered (and sampled) by such rap artists as Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Queen Latifah, and Big Daddy Kane - many of whom would subsequently invite the man they called The Godfather of Rap to guest star on their albums - Moore enjoyed a late life comeback. He even returned to films, starring in Shaolin Dolemite (1999) and The Return of Dolemite (2002), and contributing cameos to Robert Townsend's B*A*P*S* (1997) opposite Halle Berry and Big Money Hustlas (2000), a vehicle for the Detroit-based hiphop duo Insane Clown Posse, in which Moore reprised his Dolemite character as a ghost. Moore died in October 2008 at the age of 81 from complications of diabetes. In the wake of his passing, friends and associates of the blaxploitation and rap icon came forward to confirm longstanding rumors that Moore, who never married, was homosexual (or possibly bisexual) - a posthumous revelation that did little to undermine Moore's loyal fanbase while proving itself yet another facet to a man who remained "... young and free/And just as bad as I wanna be."

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:Rudy Ray Moore interview, Shocking Images, nos. 3-4, 1993Rudy Ray Moore interview by Nathan Rabin, The A/V Club, April 2002,"An Encore for the Historic Dunbar Hotel" by Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2013Rudy Ray Moore obituary by Douglas Martin, The New York Times, October 22, 2008

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