Total Recall

Nine Movies That Bring the Funk

With Get On Up hitting theaters, we run down some of the grooviest flicks of all time.

by | July 31, 2014 | Comments

Make It Funky

The Godfather of Soul gets his cinematic due this weekend with the James Brown biopic Get On Up, starring 42‘s Chadwick Boseman as the legendary singer. The prospect of watching director Tate Taylor’s dramatization of Brown’s remarkable life has left all of us in the RT offices with ants in our pants and the need to dance, so we decided to devote this week’s list to a celebration of all things filmic and funky. Jump back, we wanna kiss ourselves: It’s time for Total Recall!

Black Dynamite


A blaxploitation spoof that actually functions as a fairly brilliant movie in its own right, Black Dynamite affectionately revives a discarded genre with humor that, while never shy about puncturing the shoddy production values and threadbare plots those earlier movies are known for, avoids settling for cheap scorn. Starring Michael Jai White as the titular martial arts-wielding ladies’ man, Dynamite tosses out all the expected story beats — a protagonist with a score to settle, a community writhing in the grip of drugs and crime, a litany of grave injustices perpetrated by the Man — and uses them to string together a series of absurd, hilarious, and absurdly hilarious gags. As Shaula Clark enthused for the Boston Phoenix, “As Dynamite kung-fu-fights his way through a vast conspiracy involving smack-addled orphans, malt liquor, and the best (read: worst) exploding-car scene of 2009, you’ll feel a rush of 1970s nostalgia you never knew you had.”



Pam Grier picked up a Golden Globe nomination for her work in Quentin Tarantino’s (arguably more widely seen) Jackie Brown, but if you want to know why he wanted to honor her with that role in the first place, you need to go back to the source — the string of blaxploitation features Grier made her cinematic bones with in the 1970s, including 1973’s grimly funky Coffy. Boasting typically strong work from Grier and a standout soundtrack from the monumentally talented Roy Ayers, Coffy follows the misadventures of an inner-city nurse who strikes back against the drug underworld that left her younger sister hooked on smack; given that her scheme includes posing as a Jamaican prostitute to get close to a devious pimp (Robert DoQui) and take down a vicious Mafia don (Allan Arbus), you can pretty much guess at the level of sex, drugs, and violence that go down during the movie’s 91-minute running time, but in this case, knowing what’s in store doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable. “Jack Hill directs for maximal suspense, violence, and voyeuristic appeal,” wrote an appreciative Don Druker for the Chicago Reader, “which Grier certainly embodies.”

The Harder They Come


Part crime drama, part message movie, and 100 percent reggae’s utterly funky coming-out party in the U.S., The Harder They Come utilizes its classic soundtrack as the backdrop for a hard-hitting (and fairly loosely adapted) portrayal of the life and underworld exploits of real-life Jamaican criminal Ivanhoe Martin, a.k.a. Rhyging. An enormous box office sensation in Jamaica and a midnight movie classic in the States, Harder remains noteworthy on cinematic as well as musical grounds; it is, as Melissa Anderson wrote for the Village Voice, “The definitive postcolonial cult-movie musical.”

Love and Basketball


Like Steely Dan said in 1980’s “Hey Nineteen,” hard times have befallen the soul survivors; following the blaxploitation explosion, the cinema got a heck of a lot less funky, and these days, it’s quite a bit harder to find a film/soundtrack combination that delights the eyes while encouraging one to get one’s swerve on. A notable exception: 2000’s Love and Basketball, starring Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan as a young couple negotiating the pitfalls of life and love, on and off the basketball court — all accompanied by a blend of new and classic cuts from the likes of Rufus and Chaka Khan, Al Green, Angie Stone, and Guy. Wrote Stephanie Zacharek for Sight and Sound, “It’s a fine example of a conventionally made picture which follows all the rules yet still emerges as fresh and original.”

Purple Rain


After scoring his first Top 10 pop hit with 1982’s “1999,” Prince went all in for Purple Rain, taking advantage of the complete creative control he’d negotiated from Warner Bros. to put together a musical biopic that presented a (very) loose retelling of his Minneapolis youth, set to the strains of the funkiest, most ambitious music of his career. While the results weren’t always thoroughly compelling on strictly cinematic terms, as a complete package, Purple Rain was one of the more purely enjoyable efforts of the year, and it kicked off a period of total radio domination for Prince that lasted for the rest of the decade. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Purple Rain,” opined Rob Nelson of the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, calling it “the Citizen Kane of Minnesota movies and a worldwide showcase for the ascendance of its then-26-year-old star into rock ‘n’ roll eternity.”



Other cats cop out when there’s danger all about, but not John Shaft, the all-around bad mother — shut your mouth! — who runs around risking his neck for his brother man whenever he isn’t busy being a sex machine to all the chicks. Shaft is a complicated man, but director Gordon Parks’ brand of blaxploitation noir proved an easy sell for audiences, who generated a whopping $13 million return on MGM’s $500,000 investment, producing one of several bankruptcy-staving hits in the studio’s colorful history and helping, along with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, to kick off a wave of like-minded features. Shaft remains a standard-bearer of the genre, however, thanks to Richard Roundtree’s imposing performance in the title role — and Isaac Hayes’ classic ode to the character, which anchored a soundtrack that went on to set a sales record for the Stax label. “Shaft,” declared Filmcritic’s Christopher Null, “is nothing short of a classic.”

Soul Power


Part history lesson, part sports documentary, and part concert movie — all of which combine into a joyous, effortlessly entertaining whole — Soul Power looks back on the Zaire 1974 music festival planned around the Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in October of that year. Featuring performances from James Brown, the Spinners, Bill Withers (Hope She’ll Be Happier), Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, and many others, Power adroitly walks the line between lamenting lost cultural potential and celebrating a truly unique moment in time; as Ann Hornaday observed for the Washington Post, the end result “turns out to be an unusually resonant time capsule, one that weaves together theatrics, musicianship, cosmopolitanism and sharp political critique in a vibrant look-back that’s at once celebratory and wistful.”



Presenting audiences with a supposedly sympathetic drug dealer protagonist looking to score a million-dollar haul before getting out of the business is a lot to ask, but darn it if 1972’s Superfly doesn’t pull it off. Starring Ron O’Neal as Priest, a coke dealer who hatches the aforementioned scheme with his partner Eddie (Carl Lee), it’s a dark (and sometimes darkly comic) tale of the would-be kingpin as a put-upon middleman, squeezed from all sides by cops, thugs, girlfriends, and anybody else who wants a piece of the action — and an incredibly successful one, not least because of Curtis Mayfield’s classic soundtrack (which ultimately ended up making even more money than the film). Calling Superfly “one of the best to come out of the genre,” Counting Down’s Larry Carroll wrote, “O’Neal gives a fine (but always funky) performance in one of the last movies before the genre ate itself and became self-parody.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out Get On Up.

Finally, here’s the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in Ski Party (1965), which proves that James Brown can make anything funky — even an alpine rescue:

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