A Motown martial arts movie ? You heard.
In 1985 Berry Gordy produced what ace critic Roger Ebert described at the time as a “great near-miss”. It managed to gross $25m according to wikipedia but it has largely been ignored by history. Ebert also said “my guess is that ‘The Last Dragon’ will be a big box-office hit, maybe on the order of ‘Flashdance’.” You can’t call ’em all.
Of course, you would imagine that even if the film is as bad as the New York Times said (“street smarts are minimal”, and a side plot “too idiotic to bear explaining”), at least the soundtrack should be a corker. You can’t call ’em all.
Still, the LP is in my record box, thanks to Pete, and it isn’t all bad. Track-by-track, here is catalogue number ZL 72363:
‘The Last Dragon Theme’ by Dwight David
I can’t help myself. I like the opening theme. It’s got a bassline that could have come out of classic strategy game ‘Red Alert’, out of control drums, vocal muscles that remind me a little of Edwin Starr and it introduces us to the concept of ‘The Glow’ (what, like off Ready Brek ?), the superpower our young martial arts hero aspires to, in order to defeat Big Bad, Sho’nuff the Shogun of Harlem. KAPOW !
‘7th Heaven’ by Vanity
This, by contrast, is utterly risible. Music nicked from Abba (see video below), vocals filched from hell, and lyrics from the gutter. Srsly; this is toilet.
“I can’t explain how I’m gonna feel
Once you come inside
I know you love my ride
You can fool around in my room
And enjoy my golden rule:
Keep it up !”
Grace Jones you ain’t.
‘Star’ by Alfie
Vanity’s track isn’t the only one that’s derivative – I can definitely hear strains of Deniece Williams’ ‘Let’s hear it for the boy’. There’s some nice synth lines to this enjoyable funk/pop crossover but it does itself in with a painful entrance into the bridge and some unnecessary and excruciating vocal gymnastics. It’s also missing a hallmark of quality: knowing when to stop.
‘Fire’ by Charlene
Krazee sounds – and I am a particular fan of the use of explosions in song – deliriously OTT drums, tremendous synths (especially the sinister opening – I can only assume these accompany the machinations of Sho’nuff), are all ultimately let down by a limp chorus, iffy lyrics, underpowered vocals, and an outro with a pathetically quiet guitar that really should have been howling. Questions must be asked about why this did not feature on the soundtrack to ‘Hot Rod’.
‘The Glow’ by Willie Hutch
There’s not much to be said about this. It’s better than Vanity ? Willie Hutch was a Motown songwriter, as well as an artist in his own right, and was the man behind the soundtrack to notable blaxploitation picture Foxy Brown. At this point it was a comeback he was after; small wonder it never really came off. The only exceptional element of this song – which ought to have been much much better, given that it is the soundtrack to the film’s ultimate trophy – is the rap. And by exceptional I mean exceptionally shit. It is repetitive, unimaginative, and contains little to no discernible or coherent narrative, or any other type of flow. Utterly half-baked and totally sub-Sugarhill Gang.
‘Rhythm of the Night’ by DeBarge
This hardy perennial feels somewhat out of place, mainly due to the thorough professionalism in evidence throughout. This slick pop-soul dancefloor filler also feels like album filler – not because the quality is lacking, just because nowhere is there any trace of karate or Motown.
‘Upset Stomach’ by Stevie Wonder
From filler to killer. Yer man Wonder serves us up some angular pop wizardry about how a broken heart is messing with his digestion. Great vocals. Stevie’s sick.
‘First Time On A Ferris Wheel’ by Smokey Robinson and Syreeta
NOW I want to throw up. The ‘love theme’ starts like a cheap and nasty take-off of “Up Where We Belong”, and that’s its best moment. Saccharine nonsense. If this is what it feels like to be romanced by our hero, I’d rather take my chances with Sho’nuff. It’s just as well that Syreeta and Smokey have got plenty of other material in their back catalogues.
‘Peeping Tom’ by Rockwell
You know, I’d quite like this perky little song if it weren’t for the fact that it’s basically extolling the virtues of having a stalker. How cute ! Adorable ! Did I mention that Rockwell is the stage name for Kennedy William Gordy…. Inexplicable screeching guitar maims the second half.
‘Inside You’ by Willie Hutch featuring The Temptations
There’s nothing left out on the track by Willie and The Temptations as they revel in the triumph of Leroy Green. “You know you’ve got the stuff, you’ve got the class/So utilise what you’ve learned in the past”. Not used often enough, ‘utilise’. Soul, funk, drama, a pinch of the future Beverley Hills Cop soundtrack, and some light dusting with ‘eastern’ musical effects and some karate vocalisations: you’ve got everything you could want in this delightful nonsense. Thank god that’s over.
Finally, I have to make mention of a wonderfully barmy fansite that keeps the flame alive, including hopes of a remake starring Samuel L Jackson and Rihanna.