My Year Of Flops Case File # 53 Doctor Detroit
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I am a big fan of musicals, but I'm an even bigger fan of musical sequences in non-musicals. It brings me great joy when a movie, especially a middling mediocrity, gives itself over wholeheartedly to an elaborately choreographed production number. In these blissful little oases of synchronized sound and movement, filmmakers abandon realism altogether and embrace the artifice and life-affirming escapism of movie-making at its most sublimely ridiculous.
My favorite scene in She's All That (oh, but there are so many to choose from!) is that glorious moment at the climactic prom where Usher admonishes his classmates to remember "that dance" he taught them and the cast breaks into a lavish Broadway-style number set to the timeless strains of Fatboy Slim's "Rockafeller Skank." It's as if director/choreographer Robert Iscove is breaking the fourth wall and confiding to the audience "I don't really give a shit about the story I'm supposed to be telling, but look at this sweet-ass dance I choreographed! Ain't it just the bomb?" In the middle of a so-so teen movie, a flamboyant musical breaks out, if only for four giddy minutes.
A similarly unexpected, similarly sweet dance number breaks out spontaneously during the climax of today's My Year Of Flops entry, 1983's Doctor Detroit. In it, Dan Aykroyd's professor/reluctant pimp must simultaneously put in an appearance as himself at a fancy dinner where an important, university-saving endowment will be presented and show up at the Player's Ball as Doctor Detroit, an eccentric criminal icon whose heroism makes him an instant folk hero to the underworld. Just how bad of a motherfucker is this Doctor Detroit? Let's just say that James Brown took some time off from his busy schedule leading police on angel-dust-fueled high-speed chases to pay sweaty, sweaty tribute to him in song ("Get Up Offa That Thing/Doctor Detroit") and dance. In the ultimate pop-culture sacrilege, Aykroyd pits his Strangelovian dance moves against those of the Godfather of Soul.
While Brown serenades the Good Doctor in song, pimps get up and hos get down in a gloriously choreographed production number. Who wouldn't want to live in a world where people spontaneously start dancing in perfect unison as if driven by the unseen hand of some divine choreographer?
Doctor Detroit was released just a month before Trading Places, but disappeared from theaters well before the Eddie Murphy/Aykroyd smash began its spectacular run. Both films cast Aykroyd as a stuffy blueblood who is forced through a series of zany, farcical complications to mix and mingle with the criminal element. In Trading Places, Aykroyd is mothered by hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Jamie Lee Curtis. In Doctor Detroit, he serves as an unlikely father figure to four big-hearted hookers.
Beyond serving as a funhouse mirror to Trading Places, the film represents Aykroyd's Nutty Professor, and not just because he plays an academic whose far-fetched tomfoolery and madcap shenanigans can only be described as, well, zany. Doctor Detroit is Aykroyd's bizarro-world version of Nutty Professor smoothie Buddy Love. Aykroyd's two distinct personas in the film echo the two sides of his public persona. The professor represents the jargon-obsessed super-geek who'd go on to write and star in Ghostbusters the following year. Doctor Detroit, meanwhile, represents the black-music-obsessed white-negro hipster club-owner who did more than any dorky white Canadian in history to popularize blues the way Caucasians have always popularized black music: by selling a watered-down, more commercially viable imitation of the real thing.
Doctor Detroit occupies a strange racial limbo: he's clearly identified with the non-white underworld and the undisputed king of the Player's Ball, yet his voice and mannerisms aren't merely Caucasian: they're super-white, damn near translucent. In that respect, he's the antithesis of Gary Oldman's snarling WAfrican-American (that's the more culturally sensitive term for Wigger) flesh-peddler in True Romance.
These two distinct sides of Aykroyd each boast their own theme music: the Doctor gets mad props from James Brown while the professor gets serenaded by the iconic uber-geeks in Devo, the Beatles of the pocket-protector and calculator watch set. I suspect that music buff Aykroyd signed on solely to play a character lovingly memorialized in song by both James Brown and Devo. Doctor Detroit's insulting idiocy comes with a refreshing amount of appealing fantasy.
In a story dreamed up by Bruce Jay Friedman, who has won my eternal gratitude for writing the short story that inspired Elaine May's masterful The Heartbreak Kid, Aykroyd plays a mild-mannered professor whose uptight existence is thrown upside down by a chance encounter with smooth-as-silk pimp Howard Hesseman, who somehow managed to get typecast as the coolest motherfucker on the planet despite his rapidly receding hairline and basset-hound face. In a bid to avoid paying the $80,000 he owes to butch crime boss "Mom" (Kate Murtaugh), Hesseman creates a fictional super-criminal named "Doctor Detroit" he claims muscled him out of the money.
Hesseman then flees town, but not before manipulating Aykroyd into donning a ridiculous wig, fake metal hand, and adopting a trick voice that suggests Truman Capote by way of Lorne Michaels so he can inhabit the role of "Doctor Detroit" during run-ins with "Mom." Soon, a man who has previously planned his life down to the millisecond is somehow improvising, mugging, riffing, and doing zany character work like a veteran comic performer with over a decade of experience on stage, film, and television, in both the United States and Canada.
In a clear indication that there are some seriously intelligent people behind all this rampant stupidity, Aykroyd's remarkable transformation from Poindexter to Captain Save-A-Ho is depicted as a manifestation of his reverence for the chivalric code he lectures about in his Comparative Literature class. Surely, if Lancelot were kicking it in 1983 Chicago, he'd be more than happy to put on a wig, adopt a high, simpering "comic" voice, and slap on a metal hand in a selfless bid to help some hookers out of a jam.
All the while, Aykroyd must help save his college by helping to secure the big donation that will keep it in business. Aykroyd's university here serves the same function struggling rec centers fulfill in break dancing exploitation movies from the same era: as a convenient institution-in-distress to be dramatically rescued during the big, hokey climax.
Doctor Detroit is a veritable encyclopedia of mothballed, shameless comic tropes, from the scene where Hesseman improvises Detroit's name by borrowing words he sees in Murtaugh's office to the climax where Aykroyd must hastily throw on and discard his Doctor Detroit get-up while racing from the Player's Ball to the big university alumni dinner and back again.
Like Boat Trip, another guilty pleasure of mine, Doctor Detroit is so transcendently stupid, gimmicky, and shameless that it almost becomes a smart meta-parody of stupid, gimmicky, shameless high-concept '80s comedies. Just about every hackneyed comedy bit parodied in That's My Bush–which spun a whole episode out of the protagonist-must-be-in-two-places-at-once gag–is employed here, including my personal favorite, the internal monologue delivered aloud for no apparent reason. Which begs the question: is Doctor Detroit in on the joke? Are we supposed to laugh with it or at it? Is it intentionally or unintentionally stupid? The presence of smart professionals like Aykroyd and Friedman would seem to suggest it is, but audiences and critics at the time certainly didn't embrace it as subversive meta-commentary on cheesy comedy.
So is Doctor Detroit a Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success? I certainly enjoyed parts of it, but I feel like giving a movie this ridiculous the highest grade would diminish the highest ranking I've concocted for my fuzzy, often maddening little rating system. So I guess I'm going to label it a supremely fun Fiasco that has enjoyed a surprising second life, thanks both to the mild popularity of Devo's theme song and Futurama, whose similarly nefarious "Mom" heavy and her henchmen owe a great deal to the film.
Doctor Detroit ends by promising that Aykroyd's misadventures will continue in Doctor Detroit II: The Wrath Of Mom, though that's probably just a glib, throwaway Star Trek II joke. Nevertheless, if Aykroyd can make a Blues Brothers sequel fifteen years after John Belushi injected his final speedball, there's no reason he can't finally make good on his promise of a follow-up to Doctor Detroit. At 87, the apparently retired Murtaugh might just be too old to return, but I'm sure Judi Dench would be honored to take over the role. Up next: O.C And Stiggs.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco