Up Tight

You guys know who Booker T and the MGs are, right? The amazing instrumental R&B group, centered around soulful organist Booker T. Jones, with a group of super-tight studio musicians including Blues Brothers Steve Cropper and (in a later lineup) Donald “Duck” Dunn. They were the house band for Stax Records, so not only did they have all their great albums but you can hear them backing up Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and others.

If you know them you might also know this song, “Time Is Tight”:

Recognize that? Their somewhat similar song “Green Onions” is used in way more movies, but “Time Is Tight” is in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, so you’ve at least heard it in there.

One thing I didn’t know until a couple years ago is that this song was originally composed as part of the score for a 1968 movie called UP TIGHT, directed by Jules Dassin (RIFIFI). I found the soundtrack on vinyl, but at that time the movie had never been on video. It finally came out a couple weeks ago so I checked it out.

(Note for title punctuation buffs: the cover of the new blu-ray and DVD spells it “UPTIGHT,” IMDb says it’s “UP TIGHT!”, but I’m going with UP TIGHT ’cause that’s what it says on the record.)

Although the whole score is by Booker T and the MGs it’s not a heavy music movie – it’s actually very quiet, not unlike RIFIFI. It’s a re-telling of the novel The Informer, but instead of dealing with Irish independence it’s about black militants in Cleveland. It kinda reminds me of that Sidney Poitier movie THE LOST MAN (which came out a year later), except artier. Dassin wrote it with Ruby Dee (her only writing credit) and star Julian Mayfield (he has one other – the novel and screenplay for something called THE LONG NIGHT, not on video).

Right from the beginning it feels like a different kind of film. The opening credits are a Booker T vocal song called “Johnny I Love You” over painterly experimental animation by John and Faith Hubley. Then there are a few minutes of intense color documentary footage of Martin Luther King’s funeral procession, thousands of people on the streets watching solemnly as his coffin goes by. From there we go to our setting in Cleveland, where people are gathered around quietly watching on TV. (The movie came out less than 9 months after the actual event, so feelings were still raw.)

Tonight a group of black militants led by Johnny Wells (THE MACK himself, Max Julien) are planning a heist of guns and ammo, but when they go to pick up one member of their crew, Tank (Mayfield, who only had a bit part in one other movie), he’s drunk and ranting about not wanting to do it, sad about Dr. King and mad at these other guys who disliked the reverend anyway. He’s clearly not in a condition to come along, but knows it’s trouble when they decide to go without him. It’s his fault when it goes wrong.

The heist sequence is not the centerpiece so it’s not as long and involved as the all-time-classic one in RIFIFI, but it reminded me of that a little. It’s all silent as they try to sneak in without arousing a security guard’s attention. There are some ahead-of-their-time POV shots that bring you into the action and it ends with a camera zooming in on a jacket left at the scene, and its label that reads “J. WELLS.” Whoops.

So Johnny is wanted for the murder of a security guard, and he goes into hiding. The informer of the previous title is Tank – he’s a drunk, he’s got no money for his lady and he seems more associated with this movement out of confusion or desperation than actual political passion. They don’t really trust him, and they shouldn’t.

When he gives in and snitches for the cash reward the whole deed is done in his P.O.V., like the opening of HALLOWEEN. Then his world gets more and more surreal. He should bring the money home but instead he goes out for a night on the town. Eventually he ends up drunk at a party some rich white people are having at some kind of carnival place. He plays a shootout game where he has to draw an a mechanical cowboy. Shooting a white man with glowing red eyes. The white people start asking him about being a militant. He freaks them out by ranting about a fictional plan to take all the white people’s water. It’s all shot through a funhouse mirror.

At best you can feel sorry for Tank, he’s not the most sympathetic protagonist. But there’s not really a clear “good guy” either. The white cops are appropriately portrayed as assholes. Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne, narrator of BABE), a gay black man who works with the police, is a very strong and interesting character, but cynical in the way he’s willing to sell out his brothers. The militants aren’t totally wrong in their skepticism about non-violent protest, after all they just saw what happened to Dr. King. But they are obviously shown as wrong in their rejection of Teddy (Michael Baseleon), a white civil rights activist.

That’s one of the best scenes. B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques), the leader of the local non-violent group, meets with the militants in an abandoned bowling alley, and the militants are pissed to see this Jeremy Renner looking white guy in a suit and thick-framed glasses. They act like he’s a cop, but he reminds them he’s marched and been arrested with them before. He’s for real. “I’m no conscious stricken liberal.” But they still make him leave.

“That’s great,” he says. “Stomped on. Spilled blood. But you can’t work here anymore.”

This is coming from a white director. Of course he’s gonna have a white guy who’s down with the cause. What’s interesting is as he’s leaving one of the militants says something to him that makes some sense:

“Teddy, we got to do it alone. We don’t want your know-how. We’ve got to develop our own, or die. Think about it. Go help the white brother. He’s in deep trouble. Change him. That’s your job.”

(Of course, another guy leaves him with the less helpful request, “Teddy. If you want to help us, send us some guns.”)

But later there’s a scene where Teddy’s riding the bus and there’s a bunch of police activity. His window is open and the bus happens to stop right next to a patrol car, where he hears an officer saying they found out where Johnny Wells is. Teddy gets off the bus and runs to a phone booth, tries to warn them… but they won’t listen. And the police shoot Johnny. Maybe they should’ve accepted a little of his know-how after all.

The traitor Tank is stuck between all these factions, and when they find out what he did they basically give him a trial, facing down his accusers, people testifying against him. And he gets the death penalty. B.G. disagrees: “You need a legality!” But there is no appeals process here. The real justice system screwed them all over so they had to make their own, and it wasn’t very good either.

The best thing about this movie is that it looks incredible. The colors are stunning and it’s an amazing record of these Cleveland locations. You see all this rain at night, neon lights reflected in puddles, smokestacks, molten metal, blood banks, the ugly Cleveland Indians mascot on store front windows, which may or may not be intended as an ironic comment on racism… there’s a scene that takes place with characters running between piles of burning garbage in an actual junkyard. All these great locations – a burnt down house, the abandoned bowling alley, the alley behind the abandoned bowling alley. But some of it looks so cool that I’m not sure whether Dassin just knows how to shoot things or whether he has a huge, elaborate soundstage for some scenes. I’m leaning toward yes, but I honestly can’t tell for sure. You wouldn’t think a movie like this would get a budget big enough for that, but I don’t know.

Since it’s basically about a guy wandering around killing time before somebody comes after him the story sometimes feels a little aimless. And like alot of movies from this era the acting and dialogue are very theatrical, not naturalistic, so it’s not exactly a believable portrait of the time and culture. But it’s an interesting caricature. And I think the best moments are when nobody is talking. Although hints of “Time Is Tight” show up in other parts of the movie, the actual song appears at the end in a beautiful sequence where Tank sits and enjoys a view of the city and comes to terms with his inevitable fate. It’s one of those endings where I’m not even totally sure what the filmatists intended, but it just feels so right that it makes any meandering that came before seem okay.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 at 1:18 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Up Tight”

  1. P.S. GZA fans will recognize the intro to this song “Run Tank Run” from the soundtrack:


  2. Sorry, Vern…this is the first thing that comes to mind when I think “Booker T”
    I’m sure the name is a tribute though.

  3. Well Stu his partner’s name was Stevie Ray, which itself was probably a tribute to SRV. I think this song was also used in both BLUES BROTHERS movies since Cropper and Duck Dunn were in the band. Haven’t seen the movie, but I like a few things from them, especially their MCLEMORE AVENUE album (a cover of most of the songs from ABBEY ROAD). They also did a cover of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on their last studio album that easily tops the original

  4. I was very impressed by “Up Tight” when I spit-taked upon it on Netflix Streaming a couple months ago. For years it’s been one of those holy grail type rarities like “Johnny Got His Gun” and “My Son John” that inexplicably leapfrog over real-world distribution to end up on Netflix. It’s Dassin’s most impressionistic work, I think, with stylistic influences from Orson Welles to Vincente Minnelli (it looks, as you’ve pointed out, Verne, more like a soundstage musical than a location crime drama) to, of course, John Ford, whose 1935 version of the same story won Victor McLaglen a Best Actor Oscar. It plays essentially like an opera: many of the scenes feel like arias, with dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tennessee Williams melodrama, rather than an urban drama by the director of “The Naked City.” I’ve heard it called the first Blaxploitation movie, but I don’t buy that. Blaxploitation doesn’t take itself, or ultimately the contemporary black experience, very seriously; rap videos are more closely related to Blaxploitation than “Up Tight.” “Up Tight” is more interested in the mythical than the mundane. It has more in common with “Black Orpheus” than “Superfly.”

  5. Just to further establish how unbelievably white I am, I am most familiar with Booker T and the MGs because they played back up for Neil Young on his album ARE YOU PASSIONATE? Sorry, Vern.

  6. Well I’m sold. The photography alone sounds worthwhile, but the themes and story are the sort of thing I go for, and I like how the following bit of dialogue dovetails with the realization Malcolm X came to toward the end of his life: “Teddy, we got to do it alone. We don’t want your know-how. We’ve got to develop our own, or die. Think about it. Go help the white brother. He’s in deep trouble. Change him. That’s your job.”

    Man, that’s Malcolm to a T. Interesting to see a movie of those times embrace it, but then again Alex Haley’s book was quite popular; maybe they read it beforehand.

  7. Might be a good double feature with the more domestic KILLER OF SHEEP, which despite being shot almost a decade later, seems to have a similar kind of vibe to it, albeit with a jazzier soundtrack.

    Also, I first learned about Booker T because he plays a playfully funky organ solo on one of the sillier tunes on Rancid’s latest album. Seriously, its weird but true. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilsd2ajX6qk

  8. Bad Seed – I think Ruby Dee probably knew Malcolm X. Her husband Ossie Davis spoke at his funeral. I should look up the relevant details.

  9. Fear not, Vern, I’m familiar with and a fan of Booker T. & the MGs, due to possession of functioning ears. Not all of the slightly younger crowd is sonically ignorant.

    I haven’t yet seen UP[ ]TIGHT[!], but I can vouch for THE INFORMER (1935), and not just because I’m a part-Irish honky. I believe it to be [the usually great, occasionally troublingly bad] John Ford’s finest film that I’ve seen, a 4 star movie all the way, one of those movies that I often consider among the top 30 movies of all time. Yeah, seriously, it’s great, even Great with a capital G in my opinion.

    RIFIFI is a good one, so I shall visit this Dassin joint and form an opinion within the next 48 hours, I reckon. Thanks for the heads up.

  10. I didn’t know that about Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis being friends with Malcolm X, but that connection is way better than the filmmakers simply reading the Haley book!

  11. Yeah, now I had time to look it up and it looks like I was right about that. According to wikipedia Dee and Davis had been married for 20 years by the time of this movie, and:

    “They were well known as civil rights activists, and were close personal friends of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other icons of the era. Davis and Dee’s deep involvement in the movement is characterized by how instrumental they were in organizing the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, even to the point of serving as emcee. Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X. He re-read part of this eulogy at the end of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. He also delivered a stirring tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at a memorial in New York’s Central Park the day after King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.”

  12. Hey Mouth, I’d be interested to hear an example of a “troublingly bad” John Ford film. It took me a while to warm up to him, but once I had, revisiting his movies that hadn’t gelled for me on first viewing was a pretty rewarding experience. The comedic middle of Cheyenne Autumn is a little hard to process, but makes sense as a kind of satiric jab at the complacency and cynicism of the white folks of the day; they’re made to look silly because they are silly. But if you watch that sequence as straightforward comic relief it seems pretty hamhanded. 7 Women never managed to gain much critical success, but every time I watch it it rises higher on my list of favorite Ford films. Sometimes the critics get it wrong.

  13. RIP Donald Duck Dunn. Great write-up. I also agree with Charley I’d also be interested in hearing an example.

  14. I saw the film when it came out. (In Viet Nam, i think – definitely at a Navy base theatre).

    The title is listed as “Uptight” in the credits and (now) on IMDB*.

    The climactic sequence that “Time is Tight” was written for is a brilliant piece of acting.


    * I fought a year-long battle with IMDB to get them to list the 1983 sex’n’drugs’n’rock&roll comedy Get Crazy! under that title – i finally managed to find someone who could confirm (via director Alan Arkush) that that was, indeed, the original release title… So don’t necessarily trust IMDB on titles if there’s a dispute.

  15. A heads-up:

    I’ve been trying to see this one for roughly 10-15 years, and recently Criterion unceremoniously put it out, and it’s available on Filmstruck.

    As I’ve learned from the VHS days that if it takes a long-ass time and many hoops to jump in order to track down a film, you should probably temper your expectations of the film itself, as it’s probably not going to live up to the effort expended. With that said, the above was unnecessary for Uptight, it’s fucking good. Maybe even great.

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