Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch moving from July to October, we’re singling out other ensemble comedies to watch instead.
Even if it’s a job that you otherwise like—or, let’s be honest, don’t really mind all that much—it’s impossible not to count down the minutes at a minimum-wage gig. Something about being on the clock makes you want to immediately clock back out again, the desire for freedom crawling under your skin. The one thing that can make shift work a little less itchy is a fun group of coworkers, people whose wisecracks and shit talk carve hours off of an otherwise interminable day. And there was never a more agreeable crew than the one working at the car wash in the 1976 Michael Schultz film.
The mere phrase “working at the car wash” will immediately trigger an earworm in readers of a certain age. And indeed, the soundtrack for Car Wash, performed by former Temptations backing band Rose Royce and produced by Motown’s Norman Whitfield, is an essential element of the film, setting the tone for a day in the life of the Dee-Luxe Car Wash in Downtown L.A. This is a slacker story made when Richard Linklater was still in high school, one that perfectly captures what was going on in pop culture and politics at the time. Disco, blaxploitation, New Hollywood, counterculture comedy, revolutionary politics, intergenerational conflict, gay liberation—they’re all present in this collection of charmingly laid-back comedic vignettes.
The day begins in the locker room, where the staff of the Dee-Luxe—mostly Black, but with Native, white, and Latinx also represented—changes into orange uniforms that, with the benefit of hindsight, look a lot like prison uniforms. The core cast includes T.C. (Franklyn Ajaye), a charming goofball who dreams of being the first Black superhero; Abdullah (Bill Duke), a stone-faced Black nationalist formerly known as Duane; gender-nonconforming Lindy (Antonio Fargas), whose skills at dressing down a bully rival those of the queens in Paris Is Burning; Lonnie (Ivan Dixon), formerly imprisoned and determined to turn his life around; owner Mr. B (Sully Boyar) and his pot-smoking Maoist son, Irwin (Richard Brestoff); starry-eyed, gum-chewing cashier Marsha (Melanie Mayron); and a crew of misfits whose storylines aren’t as developed, but whose personalities are just as colorful.
Hanging around the edges are George Carlin as a cab driver in search of the woman who bailed on a fare that morning—as well as the woman in question, Marleen (Lauren Jones), a sex worker who uses the Dee-Luxe as her base of operations. All are welcomed—or tolerated, in the case of some of the more uptight customers—with good humor, over the course of a workday that’s both absurdly eventful and just another shift. Although Car Wash came to theaters in the latter half of the blaxploitation cycle kicked off by Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971, and although the humor is bawdy and the characterizations coarse, tonally the film is more akin to a Robert Altman ensemble piece than it is to Dolemite. This is a quintessentially ’70s film, rooted in the cynicism and frustration of the decade as much as it is the fashion and music.
Schultz came to Car Wash off of the success of Cooley High (1975), a semi-autobiographical look back at screenwriter Eric Monte’s childhood in the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. For Car Wash, Schultz moved up from indie studio AIP to the majors at Universal, which assigned a white screenwriter, future Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher, to the script. Nevertheless, the film’s blend of broad comedy and social commentary is signature Schultz, and with a Black director and a majority Black cast, Car Wash also holds a place in the canon of Black cinema. It was the first film by an African American director to premiere at Cannes, and features an early showcase for Richard Pryor as Daddy Rich, the founder of the Church of Divine Economic Spirituality who arrives for a full-service wash flanked by four female disciples in white played by The Pointer Sisters. Not bad for a day’s work.
Availability: Car Wash is available to stream on Starz or to rent or purchase digitally on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and VUDU. A Blu-ray of the film was released by Shout! Selects in 2017.