Everybody is cleaning up and getting down in this classic comedy from the decade that brought you the tube top, the polyester suit and lots of good times! It's just a typical day in the lives of the employees, customers and passersby of a Los Angeles car wash. There's a would-be robbery... an assembly line of the weirdest, baddest, shadiest characters you've ever met... and lots of '70s music to pass the hours till quitting time. Featuring outrageously hilarious performances by George Carlin, Professor Irwin Corey, the Pointer Sisters, and Richard Pryor as Daddy Rich – a flamboyant Reverend who preaches the goodness of the dollar – Car Wash is a timeless classic celebrating an era devoted to living life in the fast lane.
Released in 1976, Car Wash is a low-key ensemble comedy directed by Michael Schultz (of The Last Dragon fame), and written by Joel Schumacher (yes, THAT Joel Schumacher). With its predominantly African-American cast and a setting involving the working middle-class, the movie may arguably be part of the "blaxploitation" genre. Yet its politics and humor are relatively tame, and it's probably better known for the appearance of Richard Pryor and its number one title song by Rose Royce, released during an era when disco was king. Back in those days, Car Wash may have been regarded as subversive and witty. Forty years later, modern viewers may see it as a mere curiosity.
Just because something is old or nostalgic doesn't necessarily make it a "classic" and certainly doesn't make it great. Car Wash is never boring, but neither is it very funny. It portrays "a day in the life" of various eccentric characters who work at, or make their way to the car wash, without any plot or theme holding them together, other than the story taking place on that particular afternoon. Again, perhaps the most memorable legacy of the movie is the song, which has been covered by modern pop artists and referred to in other movies and commercials. However, once the song disappears, the viewer is left with a movie which isn't the most engaging.
Headlining Car Wash are the talents of Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who were arguably near the peak of their cinematic popularity. However, their roles are limited to brief appearances with no major payoff. Pryor plays a flamboyant evangelist called "Daddy Rich," who is naturally all about fame and fortune. George Carlin is a cab driver looking out for the prostitute who stiffs him, and he is given a few minutes of observational monologue at the beginning of the film. Forty-five minutes into the picture, I grew a little tired with the main characters and wondered if Carlin or Pryor were ever going to make a re-appearance to liven things up. Carlin does, but it isn't enough to relieve me of my distractions.
All the other characters have their own distinctive two-dimensional personality, including a cross-dresser ("Lindy" played by Antonio Fargas), a boss ("Mr. B" played by Sully Boyar) who messes around with his secretary (Melanie Mayron as the feather-haired "Marsha"), along with his naively idealistic son ("Irwin" played by Richard Brestoff). Others characters include a reactionary Muslim ("Abdullah" played by Bill Duke), a prostitute ("Marleen" played by Lauren Jones) and her eventual suitor ("Hippo" played by James Spinks), and other serious as well as happy-go-lucky guys. Even the Pointer Sisters ("I'm So Excited" and "Neutron Dance") make an appearance as a quartet of singers part of Richard Pryor's entourage. (Also, fans of Bob's Burgers will notice that one of the characters "Goody" (played by Henry Kingi) wears a hat designed like a pig, which closely resembles the look of Tina Belcher; I suspect that there has to be some reference there.) All of the performers deliver convincing and well-timed performances and seem like they are having a lot of fun. For those old enough, there's an amusing "Hey, that's the guy/gal from..." reaction to all the actors who are recognizable, but may have never hit the big time.
The mix of personalities certainly livens things up with their own backgrounds and story, but with so many people running around with limited time devoted to each of their roles, there is no real hero or heroine to follow. Some of the characters have fallen on hard times and need a break in life, a few want to change the world, and others simply want to get laid. There is an attempt to integrate their types in one big picture, but it's all pretty superficial. Other characters appear then disappear to liven things up. For example, Lorraine Gary, perhaps best known as Chief Brody's wife and (spoilers!) widow in the JAWS films, makes an odd appearance as a hyperactive mother who is more concerned about the paint job on her Mercedes than her sick son's random puking. After her segment is done, there is a "what was that all about?" reaction than anything else.
The movie takes a more serious note when dealing with Abdullah's tale, which serves as the film's climax when he attempts to rob his employer shortly after being fired. His story isn't completely incongruent with all the prior slap-stick and over-the-top action (especially that involving a suspected pipe-bomber), but it gives the movie a more human touch. The remaining characters simply go on with their lives, working at the car wash the next day while trying to have some fun and amusement on the side.
A bit of online research reveals that scenes edited from the original theatrical release (but seen in its television debut) include actor Danny DeVito and Brooke Adams as owners of a restaurant next to the car wash. However, the Blu-ray contains no bonus nor extended scenes, which is a disappointment considering that fans of the movie must know they're out there.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Car Wash is given a shiny release on Blu-ray by the good people at Shout Factory, a studio consistently delivers quality products including my much-anticipated Street of Fire (thank you, thank you, thank you Shout Factory!). The single platter is housed in a standard keepcase with reversible alternate cover art. An insert of ads from other Shout Select titles is also included. The 50-gigabyte disc contains both main feature and all the supplements.
For its first appearance on Blu-ray, Car Wash is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and in 1080p video, filling the entirety of any 16:9 screens. Given it's modest budget and age, Car Wash looks great on Blu-ray. Shot on 35-millimeter stock in "Technicolor," minor imperfections creep up on the picture, which has a flat, modestly grainy look typical of productions from the 1970s. There is the occasional minor scratch and dropout which is only noticeable with critical viewing. Colors are remarkable for their distinction, especially when it comes to shades of orange on clothing. Details are clear and crisp, especially during the frequent close-ups of the actors and actresses, whose air-brushed "perfection" still can't escape the ruthless clarity of high definition. Fleshtones are accurate, and the predominantly outdoor settings are bright and vivid.
DTS-HD Master Audio is available as a two-channel mono recording for both the original soundtrack and the director's commentary. The monophonic sound is more than adequate as a soundtrack given all the dialogue, but the rather lively pop songs (title theme included) suffer a bit without a stereo presentation. Considering how important a role the music plays in the movie, it's a shame that more could not have been done with the soundtrack.
Dynamics are constricted to the mid-range, with sparse bass activity but the score is still well-integrated with voices and sound effects. Voices come through clearly and intelligibly in the mid-range, as do the sound effects and other elements on the soundtrack.
Just don't expect Dolby Atmos or DTS:X sound quality here.
The good people at Shout! Factory have provided a number of impressive supplements for a non-blockbuster release. Here are the ones you may have seen or heard before:
Radio Spots (2:59) is comprised of four audio-only commercials of varying lengths. The song and dialogue from "Mr. Richard Pryor" are spotlighted. The audio is in mono and plays against a still image from the movie.
Trailer (HD 2:22) is a preview of the feature film, which is displayed in a 4:3 aspect ratio and obviously taken from a well-worn print source.
Commentary With Director Michael Schultz provides a detailed discussion of the movie, with enough gaps in his monolgue so that viewers may follow enough of the movie. Mr. Schultz is articulate and reservedly enthusiastic. His frequent references to what is happening onscreen, with plenty of anecdotal information, raises one's appreciation of the movie.
As an experiment in comedy filmmaking, Car Wash succeeds in keeping the audience's attention for the better part of its running time. There is plenty of comedic talent onscreen, but most of it is put to middling use with less than fully satisfying results. After all these years, I'm glad to have finally seen this recognizable film, but have no real reason to give it a second viewing.
Recommended for fans, who will truly appreciate this Shout! Factory Blu-ray, but for the rest of you, Give It A Rent before buying.