CAR WASH (1976)

  • Director: Michael Schultz
  • Writer: Joel Schumacher
  • Starring: Franklin Ajaye, Sully Boyar, George Carlin, Irwin Corey, Ivan Dixon, Bill Duke, Antonio Fargas, Arthur French, Lorraine Gary, Leonard Jackson, DeWayne Jessie, Jack Kehoe, Henry Kingi, Melanie Mayron, Garrett Morris, Clarence Muse, The Pointer Sisters, Richard Pryor, Tracy Reed, Pepe Sema, Ray Vitte, and Renn Woods
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, shown at 1977 Cannes International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

If people under forty have any awareness of the movie Car Wash at all, it’s because of the title song (Car Wash!/Working at at the Car Wash, yeah!), which was one of the biggest hits of the Disco era. I myself knew it was directed by Michael Schultz and was supposed to be a fun comedy. I actually found it to be a really interesting and complicated and, yes, funny movie. It takes over the course of a long, seemingly typical day at a car wash in Los Angeles, following the various employees as they go through various crises and hijinks, minor and major. There are lots of silly bits, but the movie takes all of its characters completely seriously, and its climax has one employee who has decided to rob the place meeting one employee who has decided to burn the place down after hours. These are people living on the edge of desperation, like so many of us, not the usual subjects of comedies. But it works very well.

The sprawling cast includes names and faces you might recognize, like Bill Duke, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor, as well as a bunch of others you might not, but they’re all good in their roles. Duke plays Abdullah, a recently converted Black Muslim who gets mad because everyone calls him “Duane.” Ivan Dixon plays the gruff Lonnie, who a parolee desperately trying to earn enough for his family to live on. Franklin Ajaye plays a young hotshot who is convinced that he can get the waitress at the diner next door (Tracy Reed) to go out with him if only he can win those concert tickets off the radio. Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch) plays what seems to be an early example of a semi-respected LGBT character, a cross-dresser who proudly tells one insult-slinger, “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get.” Richard Pryor appears as an over-the-top “Prosperity Gospel” preacher called “Brother Rich,” accompanied by his followers, the Wilson Sisters. The latter happen to be played by the famed R & B group the Pointer Sisters, for reasons.

I honestly wonder if Car Wash’s place in film history would be very different if it were primarily about white people, but it isn’t, and was sort of shuffled off into a corner. It is at least as good a “ensemble over the course of one day comedy” as Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti, but both of those movies are about entirely white, middle-class teenagers, while the latter is about lower-class, mostly Black adults. That means that, both at the time of its release and for many years since, Car Wash has been shunted off to the side into a particular film “ghetto.” It probably doesn’t help that the movie is identified particularly with its soundtrack, meant to appeal very particularly to hip audiences at the time, and which now makes people think it’s going to be Saturday Night Fever or something. That is, at best, a fun but dated artifact. Yes, there are some large afros here, but I really don’t think it’s dated at all.

In fact, the original idea for Car Wash was as a stage musical, which would have the car wash set up on stage. You can easily see how this would have worked, as the whole thing is basically on location at one real-life car wash in Los Angeles’ Westlake neighborhood. The final version’s songs are mostly on the soundtrack (the characters listen to the radio while they work), except for one that the Pointer Sisters very randomly break into. Joel Schumacher (yes, that one) was eventually hired to write the screenplay, with Michael Schultz (previously featured on this site as the director of Cooley High) as the director. It boggles the mind that this movie was written by the director of Batman & Robin (though I suppose he didn’t write that one, that must have been the problem). It received good reviews and made a good amount of money (especially considered it didn’t cost that much to make), but other than the title song would soon find itself mostly forgotten.

For me one of the main interesting things about Car Wash is that it really does have class conflict on its mind. The least subtle way it features these themes is through the character of the car wash owner’s son (Richard Brestoff), who is your classic clueless liberal. Asked by his father (Sully Boyar) to work on the books, he insists on “doing the labor,” then spends his time trying to get the workers interested in Mao quotations instead of actually working. “Mao? Is he like Bruce Lee?” one asks. 

The owner himself is the sort of guy who would tell all the workers to their faces that the car wash is one big happy family, but if one of them actually asks him for anything he’ll respond with, “Sorry, we just don’t have enough money right now, maybe in a few months.” There are plenty of sillier examples, too, like when an hysterical Beverly Hills housewife (Lorraine Gary, aka Roy Scheider’s wife in Jaws) pulls in with her kid who can’t stop puking. When she finds that the bathroom is occupied, she acts like the world is ending. But afterwards she isn’t too put out to find a flaw in the way her car was washed. She is a spot-on 1970s version of a Karen.

Car Wash isn’t some huge revelation, but it is an interesting little movie with lots of small funny bits. Because has so many characters and so much going on its little stage, it does seem like one of those movies you watch a bunch of times and get different things from it. Definitely worth watching, I’d say.

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