Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Don't Give Me That Supernatural Sh!t!"

Oh, Rudy Ray Moore.

Even in the age of hip hop and internet-hyped esoterica, Rudy is in many ways as underground as he ever was. A legend of rude comedy, Moore released what were known as "party records" throughout the 60's and 70's. He's perhaps best remembered now for his string of low-budget blaxploitation films, particularly Dolemite (1975), but by "best remembered" I mean remembered mostly by film geeks and hip hop aficionados. Rudy Ray Moore is one of those rare creatures who's still distributed following someone saying something like "You've never seen a Rudy Ray Moore Movie?!? Then you have to see...."

I took a trip down memory lane and revisited Moore's bizarre later entry Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's  Son-in-Law (1977), and boy, was it awful. As awful as it ever was. And awful in that special way that makes an Ed Wood movie charming. But there's something disturbing about it...
Petey is born as a six-year old during a hurricane and after receiving martial arts training as a teen, grows up to become a stand-up comedian. (Got your attention now, don't I?)  Petey flies into to town for a series of dates that coincide with the opening of a new club by his comedy rivals and hoods Leroy and Skillet. Leroy and Skillet have their men "persuade" Petey not to perform in a series of mounting incidents that leads to Petey and friends being gunned down in front of a church after a funeral. In the afterlife, Lucifer convinces Petey to marry his hideous daughter, and in exchange resurrects Petey to exact his revenge on Leroy and Skillet with the help of his magical cane. But bowing to no man, Petey also seeks to outwit the devil and free himself from marrying Lucifer's daughter.

Now, if in some ways, minus the crazy suits and martial arts sequences, this sounds something like a blues song, I'm rather sure that's intentional. There was an early blues-folk singer William Bunch who performed as "Peetie Wheatstraw", a name from black folklore (Some suggest Bunch himself was the origin of said folklore.). Both Bunch and Robert Johnson, who was influenced by Bunch, have tall tales circling them that they sold their souls for musical fame.  However, the movie never delves all that deep into the idea.

In fact, it's difficult to say whether the over-the-top opening sequence of Petey's birth wouldn't be more at home in a blatantly racist production. As Petey's mother struggles (and hams it up to the nth degree with the rest of the cast) to give birth, the doctor first removes a large watermelon from between her legs before Petey himself arrives. In fact, watermelon makes frequent and strange appearances throughout the film, including the exploding of a truck loaded with the fruit. In many respects, I feel like the movie was trying to develop some kind of subtext but either the message didn't come through, or I'm completely wrong and it was all meant for hackneyed laughs.

Only a master filmmaker could've talked anyone into these outfits...
Otherwise, it's the usual hokey fun, you'd expect from a Rudy Ray Moore vehicle: the stiff kung fu sequences, the bombastic rhyming delivery, a bizarre orgy scene, and lots of hyperactivity.  It also features a bizarrely catchy theme song that's difficult to shake (but luckily not as dangerous to be singing as the theme to one of my favorite Fred Williamson films...look it up.).  Petey isn't the place to start with Rudy Ray Moore (that would probably be Dolemite) and it's not my favorite (that, for whatever weird reason, would probably be Disco Godfather (1979)...anyone know where Bucky is or what he has had?), but for the completist, or the person that just needs one more dose, it can't be beat.