Curtis Mayfield

Superfly: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack


By Tim Sheridan

The hero of blaxploitation cinema strutted across the urban landscape of the 70s looking clean and carrying a large can of Whupass. He (or she, in the case of sisters like Coffy or Cleopatra Jones) was usually a streetwise private eye righting the wrongs of the Man, but he would take out a brother or two if they stood in his way. The fire in his belly was eased only by his woman’s love or the inevitable big payback: pumping major heat into some diabolical ofay. Case closed.

Ask the casual moviegoer to name one of the genre’s classics and he’ll probably come up with Shaft (1971), Trouble Man (1972), or Superfly (1972), not because any of them are examples of carefully crafted mise-en-scene (perhaps the only critical hit of the genre is Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) but because they groove. After all, blaxploitation flicks, perhaps more than any other kind of movie, are inextricably linked to a specific type of sound track: stone-cold funky soul. How could our hero hook up with a pimp informer, chase some junkie down an alley, or get righteous loving without a symphony of bongos, brass, and wahwah? At its best the music aided and abetted the hero’s gangsta pose, lending extra luster to his full-length leather coat.

But while all three of these films had great sound tracks, only one of them actually increased the film’s dramatic impact and thematic complexity: Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly. Now a two-CD, 25th-anniversary edition, including alternate tracks and an interview with Mayfield, documents his essential contribution to the enduring myth of the player, that elusive mix of superhero and pimp, devil and savior. Unlike Isaac Hayes’s music for Shaft or Marvin Gaye’s music for Trouble Man, Mayfield’s Superfly reaches past the urban stereotype, exploring the human frailty that gives all myths their power.

Shaft might not be remembered at all if not for Hayes’s Oscar-winning score; its sultry instrumentals and lean grooves animate a weak story: detective John Shaft crashes through windows, shoots a few bad guys, and rescues a damsel in distress. Director Gordon Parks tosses in a few stereotyped hustlers and thugs for “gritty realism,” but Hayes’s ode to “the black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks” makes the film, cementing the blaxploitation hero’s place in popular culture. But the banal lyrics of this classic theme betray the film’s emptiness.

Trouble Man is a Shaft rip-off: the long forgotten Robert Hooks plays Mr. ‘T,’ another private eye stuck between the mob and a hard place. Again, the sound track is the film’s sole redeeming factor. Marvin Gaye came up with something far more moody than Hayes’s thick grooves, suggesting a depth the film lacks. The single from the album, “Trouble Man” (not to be confused with “Main Theme From Trouble Man,” “Theme From Trouble Man,” “‘T’ Stands for Trouble,” or “Don’t Mess With Mr. ‘T'”), is a soul masterpiece, easing into your consciousness with a gentle cymbal tap before Gaye’s sweetest falsetto tells it like it is: “I’ve come up hard, babe–but now I’m cool.” While Hayes praises Shaft from a distance, Gaye narrates in the first person, offering at least a hint of back story. For Mr. ‘T’ there are “only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death, and trouble.” Mr. ‘T’ may not be an existential hero, but in Gaye’s song his braggadocio echoes uncertainly.

Yet only Curtis Mayfield’s sound track to Superfly presents a hero in full-blown psychic confusion. It spawned two hit singles, “Superfly” and “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from ‘Superfly’).” Both songs went gold, and Mayfield won a special award for selling more than 840,000 eight-track copies of the album. Mayfield’s knack for the soul hook made hits of the album and the film, but his songs also struck a nerve with audiences, an impressive achievement given his source material.

Superfly is a chore to watch, badly acted and awkwardly constructed. What it lacks in finesse it makes up for in nerve: we first meet our hero, a pusher called Priest, snorting from a cruciform coke spoon with a nude white woman by his side. Hallelujah! But Priest wants nothing more than to quit dealing. His partner, Eddie, can’t understand. “Give all of this up?” Eddie exclaims. “Eight-track stereo, color TV in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope every day? That’s the American dream, nigger.” But Priest is determined to get away, and take his woman with him (not the Caucasian seen earlier but a sister who loves him for the man he is inside). Ironically, if he wants to escape for good he’ll have to make one last score in the only game the Man will let him play. “Work at some jive job for chump change for the rest of my life?” he asks. “If that’s the way it’s gonna be, they’d better kill me now.”

This ham-handed story plays out far more elegantly in the sound track. Mayfield took his task seriously, working within the idiom to create songs that sound as fresh today as they did a quarter century ago. “You always have to walk that fine line of creativity, what the fad is and what the timely music is,” he says in the expanded edition’s interview. Mayfield got a copy of the script before the film was shot, and rather than develop a theme song and incidental music (as Hayes and Gaye had done), he worked from the spine of the story, writing a song for each main character.

The Freddie of “Freddie’s Dead” is a bagman for Priest, saddled with a habit but devoted to his wife. When the police catch him, he spills his guts. They release him, but Freddie is a marked man; he ends up getting run over by a car. “Freddie’s Dead” is more heartbreaking than the scenario that plays out on-screen. Over a killer bass line, airy flute, and muted horns Mayfield portrays Freddie as a good person who was hoodwinked: “Let the Man / Rap a plan / Said he’d send him home / But his hope / Was a rope / And he should have known.” Mayfield rails against the tragic end of this relatively minor character, left literally for dead in the film. “Why can’t we brothers / Protect one another? / No one’s serious / And it makes me furious! / Don’t be misled / Just think of Fred.” Unfortunately the film uses only an instrumental version of the song.

While “Freddie’s Dead” mines the latent power of a minor character, “Eddie You Should Know Better” offers a revelation about Priest’s partner not found in the script. After Eddie betrays his friend, Mayfield’s lovely ballad brings Eddie’s family into the mix. “Think of the tears and fears / You bring to your folks back home / They’d say, ‘Where did he go wrong, / My Lord?'” With a single verse this cardboard character becomes much more complex.

On “Pusherman” Mayfield pulls out all the stops to dissect the myth of the player. He begins with a boasting rap: “I’m your Mama / I’m your Daddy / I’m that nigga / In the alley / I’m your doctor when in need / Want some coke? / Have some weed.” Priest, as the pusherman, is both salvation and damnation for those he services, and as a result he shares an odd relationship with his customers. “Feed me money for style / And I’ll let you trip for a while.” This is no typical antidrug anthem, especially when the pusherman cries out, “Been told I can’t be nothin’ else / Just a hustler in spite of myself / I know I can break it / This life just don’t make it.” Once again Mayfield creates sympathy where the film offers only flash.

In addition to its musical invention and lyrical power, Superfly reveals the love for humanity that has always distinguished Mayfield’s music. His careful examination of character makes the sound track rather incongruous in the blaxploitation genre. Isaac Hayes offers a slick black detective and Gaye a flimsy Trouble Man, but Mayfield gives us real, vital people filled with anger, pain, and hope. “Remember, Freddie’s dead,” Mayfield reminds us in one of the expanded edition’s antidrug radio spots, recorded during the 70s. There are no heroes in Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, only everyday people trying to get by.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ Superfly; uncredited Curtis Mayfield photo.