So Bad It’s Good: Vintage ’70s Cheese in ‘Avenging Disco Godfather’


Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies are there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (The Room), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as So Bad They’re Good — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: the anti-drug Blaxpoitation epic with cinema’s greatest title, Avenging Disco Godfather.

The time is the late ‘70s. Hoo boy, is it ever the late ‘70s. The Blueberry Hill Disco is the place to be (people are literally dancing to get in); all the macks and hustlers and their ladies gather at the bras-optional discotheque to boogey to the latest tunes and enjoy moves and rhymes of the “Disco Godfather,” Tucker Williams (Rudy Ray Moore). Sure, he’s a poor dancer and a good 20 pounds to bulky for his snug-fitting, cut-down-to-here jumpsuits, but he’s quick to jump into the DJ stand and recite rhyming couplets (occasionally from a script that can be clearly seen on the console) and commanding his patrons to “put your weight on it!”

Alas, there is trouble in paradise. DG’s nephew Bucky (Julius Carry, later of The Last Dragon), is a promising young basketball star, but he’s hooked on PCP — angel dust, or, as it is called by the DG, “aaaaaangel duuuust.” Bucky somehow tears himself away from the endless opening disco scene to get high in the parking lot, and goes plum crazy. His girlfriend rushes to tell Tucker, which leads to this immortal exchange:

When the am-ba-lance arrives, the lab-coated doctor inside (all ambulances have a doctor in them, right? Or was that just in Cannonball Run?) assures Tucker that Bucky will be okay, and invites him to the hospital, so he can tell him all about this angel dust business. So Tucker pays a visit to either Bucky’s hospital or a scene from Reefer Madness; day players overact wildly as Tucker is told the story of a young, PCP-addicted mother who roasted her baby alive, and other delightful tales. (The doc recites most of his dialogue from behind sunglasses, so you can only barely see that he’s reading it off of cue cards.) The Disco Godfather is rousted into action; you see, before he got into the disco-godfathering business, he was a cop, so he goes to visit his old captain, and tells him he’s going to be “investigating this angel-dust phenomenon.” The captain and his terrible toupee tell Tucker to do whatever he likes, as police are wont to do with private citizens investigating the drug underworld. After Tucker leaves, we get this priceless scene:

Two questions: 1) What are the other two things? 2) Really important phone call there, huh?

Once the plot is established, it’s back to the club for more disco dancing. The first fifty minutes or so, with no exaggeration, is comprised of club scenes: people dancing, Tucker rapping, more dancing, people reacting, more dancing, people clapping (usually out of sync with the shoddy soundtrack), and then, just when you are maybe growing tired of all the disco dancing, they break out the big guns—skate dancing.

A little of this stuff goes a long way; one wonders what exactly the thinking was in the editing room for these endless dance scenes (beyond “We paid good money for that location, we’re using every second of footage we shot!”). Saturday Night Fever was a huge hit a few years earlier, yes, but what’s the fun of watching people in a disco for twenty minutes at a time? Did they think moviegoers were going to join in? Or were they banking on people shelling out a few bucks to watch the kind of thing they could see on Soul Train for free?

The dancing thankfully disappears in the film’s second half, which is good news. The bad news is that it is replaced by montages of Tucker cleaning up the city (which allows the already pop-eyed Moore to engage in even more insane, silent movie-style overacting) and breaking out his kung-fu for fight scenes that are deliriously lacking in credibility:

Moore’s clumsy, hilariously fake fights were by now part of his schtick; he’d starred in three low-budget releases (along with the slightly more reputable Monkey Hustle) before Avenging Disco Godfather, playing his signature character, Dolemite, in two of them. Those films mixed Blaxpoitation tropes with broad comedy elements, so there was always at least a sense that Moore was in on the joke, that we were at least partially laughing with him. No such luck this time around — Disco Godfather’s painfully earnest anti-drug message implies that we’re supposed to take this mess seriously.

Nowhere is that intention — and its failure — more evident than in one of the few scenes from which Moore is absent: the “Attack the Wack” rally.

This is a scene that has it all. A big rally set piece, apparently attended by about a dozen people. A major character keeps saying “Wack the Attack” instead of “Attack the Wack.” A woman steps forward to tell her “personal story,” recites a few lines of dialogue with the flatness of a disinterested student reading aloud from a textbook, and doesn’t tell a personal story. And then, presumably distracted by the wailing off-camera police siren, the aforementioned major character totally blows her line (“cases of, of wack attack”), and then breaks character, laughing at her own mistake. And it all stays in. Golden! No need for another take!

And that’s the kind of wildly incompetent filmmaking that renders Avenging Disco Godfather simultaneously a chore and a treat. (It was the first and last screenwriting and directing credit for one “J. Robert Wagoner.”) Shots butt into each other awkwardly. Random lines are delivered directly to camera. Drug-induced fantasies are staged like low-budget church pageants. Entire sequences are woefully underlit, leaving actors literally in the dark for long stretches. (There is an art to lighting actors of color, and it is not on display here.) Audio sync issues are frequent. Close-ups are problematic, with the camera often entirely too close to the aesthetically unappealing Mr. Moore — which renders his two speeds of playing (over the top and way the fuck over the top) even more cringe-worthy. But he does get plenty of chances to strut his questionable stuff, and know this: if you watch this one, you and your friends will spend the next month asking “HOW? AND WHY?” and “WHERE IS BUCKY? AND WHAT HAS HE HAAAAD?” and screaming “PUT YOUR WEIGHT ON IT,” apropos of nothing. Side note: someone counted 24 uses of the latter phrase in the film — so many that it got its own credit, albeit a misspelled one (“Put your weight on it: Original phase by Rudy Ray Moore”).

By the time it was released under its original title Disco Godfather in 1979, the disco craze was ending — an unfortunate turn of events for a film that was dated within approximately four seconds of its completion. Early VHS releases tried to downplay the disco angle, switching the title to Avenging Godfather, so the forty minutes of disco scenes must have come as quite as shock to those rental customers. At some point in the ‘90s, both were combined to create the best-of-both-worlds title Avenging Disco Godfather; this was its moniker when it was first brought to my attention, and that’s how I prefer to think of it, thank you very much. But if you seek it out (and my, do I ever hope you will), they’re back to calling it Disco Godfather. Call it whatever you want; I call it a schlock masterpiece. PUT YOUR WEIGHT ON IT!

Special thanks to fellow bad movie aficionados Mac Welch, Brenda Welch, Amber Malott, and Meridith Jones.