Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wonders if the Black Shampoo is due to coal tar extract, or perhaps a deep indigo herbal compound?
He's bad…he's mean…he's a lovin' machine!
In the back of my mind, I realize that Black Shampoo is a bad movie. That didn't stop me from enjoying the hell out of it.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Jonathan (John Daniels, Mean Dog Blues) runs a salon on the Sunset Strip called "Mr. Jonathan's." Most of the patrons in Mr. Jonathan's get their hair done by stereotypical flaming homosexuals like Artie (Skip E. Lowe, Bare Knuckles) who squeal and vogue on their way to crafting exquisite do's for the ladies. But when a patron of Mr. Jonathan's wants the full treatment, she settles for nothing less than a session with Mister Jonathan himself. In his swank, secluded parlor, he gives the lucky lady a spine-tingling dose of black shampoo.
Mr. Jonathan's carefree life of hairdressing and casual sex is cramped when his new secretary Brenda (Tanya Boyd, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks) becomes the target of Mr. Wilson's (Joe Ortiz) ire. Brenda used to work for Mr. Wilson until she left the job for Mr. Jonathan's. But Mr. Wilson is a mobster, and a possessive man to boot. Don't nobody walk out on Mr. Wilson…nobody.
Mr. Jonathan doesn't take kindly to Mr. Wilson. Is it about Mr. Jonathan's self-made autonomy, or is he simply upset at Mr. Wilson's attempts to subjugate the black female? It hardly matters. The two will settle the matter the blaxploitation way—with handguns and chainsaws!
VCI is making some moves. I can't speak to their entire catalogue, but the two VCI releases I've reviewed (Blonde Ice and Black Shampoo) have been impressive in technical quality, extras, and attention to detail. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence…but if a third VCI title comes my way and it matches these two, I'll be actively seeking out titles from them in the future.
Black Shampoo…I hardly know where to start. It is ridiculous. The main dude is a tight-lipped, enormously built hairdresser who can't walk ten feet without a ritzy blonde babe dropping her clothes and throwing herself at him. He has a salon on Sunset Drive, rides in a convertible Mercedes, and gets invited to parties, rodeos, and private trysts. Forget black wish fulfillment, this is male wish fulfillment taken to the extreme.
Black Shampoo is a curious mix of the corny and cool. Stilted acting, laughable plot twists, and a steady ooze of seventies chic saturate the film to the point where your laughter cannot be contained. This is one of the funniest movies of all time, and I mean that as a backhanded compliment. (What other kind of compliment will do in a blaxploitation flick?) At the same time, John Daniels anchors the film with attitude, and the situations cover serious sociological ground.
The combined effect makes Black Shampoo the most approachable blaxploitation film I've ever seen. Pimps, tricked-out rides, fuzzy canes, vigilante justice, bookshelves full of automatic weapons, and other extreme trappings of blaxploitation have made the genre a sterile, violent phantasmagoria that never quite synchs with reality. Black Shampoo manages to tap into fantasy while retaining a dogged realism. Mr. Jonathan is not a pimp, he doesn't have a razor-studded fuzzy cane, he doesn't pack heat, and he isn't a 45th degree black belt trained by Shaolin monks in Tibet. Instead, he is just your average straight hairdresser/gigolo with mad flow. The damsel in distress is such a stereotypical situation that we look past it to see Tanya Boyd's nuanced portrayal (well, maybe "nuanced" is too forgiving a word, but she isn't cardboard either). The villains are plausible. Because of these realistic touches, Black Shampoo draws you in and the fantasy elements are heightened.
Black Shampoo begins as a straight-ahead exploitation feature. I've read criticisms of this aspect of the film, but I found the opening scenes more erotic than 90% of the "erotica" I've seen in the last 15 years. Sure, the scenes are clumsy, and set up by the scantest circumstance. But the camera knows how to linger just so, and the women are realistic enough to make me buy the scenes. Writhing silicone covered in a glistening sheen of coconut oil edited into a series of jump cuts just isn't my thing.
Somewhere in the middle, Black Shampoo awkwardly transitions into a violent hunter/prey chase. Mr. Jonathan uses chainsaws, guns, and pool cues to mete out justice. The effects are not bad for a low-budget film; I actually cringed at a couple of graphic shots. Again, camera work helps sell these scenes.
In fact, the camerawork in Black Shampoo is leagues better than the film deserves, and the exquisite cinematography often kept me riveted through scenes that had no business being interesting. Most of director Greydon Clark's films hover around the 2.5-3.5 star level at the IMDb, which is pretty darn awful. John Daniels views acting as a sideshow to his real passion, music. The real standout in Black Shampoo is Dean Cundey, a cameraman-turned-cinematographer who went on to compose the visuals for Back to the Future, Hook, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and other visually stunning films. Cundey's instincts were finely honed even at this raw stage of his career. Perhaps his involvement explains why otherwise laughable sex scenes are charged with wanton lust, why low-budget special effects reek of broken bone and fresh blood.
VCI has delivered an incredible transfer of this low-budget blaxploitation flick that could. I was actually shocked by the crisp detail, decent contrast, and freedom from major print damage. Either they found a low-mileage source print or they did some cleanup work, because this thing looks very good for its era, genre, and original budget.
The funky soundtrack has some life as well. For a mono mix, the clarity and dynamic range are impressive. Blaxploitation is all about the music, and though much of the music is generic "funky jive," it sets the tone. The opening theme song is hysterical, with choirs of sassy ladies whispering about how Mr. Jonathan is "the man." A few of the quieter moments in the film are scored with subtlety. Dialogue comes through clearly, although the recording isn't what I'd call high fi.
VCI's modus operandi is to find an enthusiast and give him or her free rein with the extras. Jay Fenton gave the Blonde Ice DVD character, and this time we have Mike White of Cashiers du Cinemart as the intrepid film fan at the helm. White provides a brickload of phone and text interviews, as well as liner notes explaining why Black Shampoo is one of his favorite films. I love extras like this; they exist outside of the parent studio and provide a fresh, enthusiastic perspective. The director's commentary is unfortunately boring, but John Daniels makes up for it with his candid phone interview. The biography, photo gallery, and trailers are precisely what you'd expect. The deleted scenes are mostly from the nudist rodeo, and lack sound. Mildly amusing, but it's easy to see why they were cut. As a whole, this extras package is outstanding. Finally, the gratuitous poster art is integrated into the packaging, and it stands alone. I'm thinking of getting a Black Shampoo poster for my wall, and I'm not even a poster kind of guy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Gays and blaxploitation go together like Perrier and malt liquor. The homosexuals in Black Shampoo are so overplayed that it moves past offensive into the realm of surrealism. At one point, Artie is sodomized with a scalding-hot curling iron. I really don't know what else to say, but if you are among the 98% of the Earth's population who might be sensitive to such things, take note.
The character Maddox is played by Jack Meoff, a.k.a. William Bonner (The Day the Lord Got Busted). Just had to point that out. Black Shampoo was a non–Screen Actors Guild production, so the SAG actors had to take alternate names. Looks like William Bonner had some fun with his.
The nudist BBQ is the nadir of the film. Hay bales, homosexuals, and naked chicks get together for some good old-fashioned games of catch the chicken, toss the pie, and other metro-Western favorites.
Did I mention death by pool cue? The curling iron sodomy? Nudist BBQ? Statuesque, swinging hairdresser? Yes, this is one strange little flick. But somehow, I enjoyed it all the way through. Maybe the seventies are cool again, maybe I'm hopelessly retro and crave a steady diet of sex and violence, who knows. But Black Shampoo is a riot that I plan to watch again.
Oh, it's guilty as hell. But that's okay, baby, just relax.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Director's Commentary
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