Film Review: The Weird World of Blowfly

Footnote in musical history gets a padded documentary that says more about the nature of fandom than about songwriter and raunchy party-record singer Clarence "Blowfly" Reid.

It's hard to call something a "documentary" when it takes at face value—and ignores mountains of evidence otherwise—the subject's claim that he invented rap music. While perhaps not on the level of the creationism-propounding Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, this sort of fringe-theory advocacy is not the hallmark of an objective journalistic film.

Where this profile of the career resurrection of singer-songwriter Clarence "Blowfly" Reid does make a point—by all indications inadvertently—is in its depiction of fans and fannish devotion, where a Miami drummer forms a band to tour with him because it's a shame to see him languish in obscurity, where hip-hop stars like Ice-T and Public Enemy's Chuck D cite Blowfly as a groundbreaking influence, and where members of the German punk band Die Ärzte can die happy now that Blowfly has opened for them.

Reid, an African-American born on Valentine's Day 1939, found his niche as an entertainer while still a youth working for white farm owners he despised. As he cantankerously tells it, he sang scatological and sexually explicit parodies of songs they loved, just to get their goat. It backfired, he says—they loved it and he soon found himself getting paid to entertain. He moved to Miami, where he still lives, and began writing soul and funk hits—both by himself and with producer Willie Clarke—for such performers as Gwen McRae (her #1 Billboard soul-chart hit "Rockin' Chair," which crossed over to hit #9 on the pop chart in 1975) and Betty Wright (her 1971 gold-record hit "Clean Up Woman"). He himself charted as a singer-songwriter with the 1969 R&B hit "Nobody But You Babe" and other singles.

Reid then found a home at the preeminent disco label of that era, TK Records, based in the Miami suburb of Hialeah. There he worked in the warehouse in exchange for studio time, and as a songwriter-producer eventually proved an early musical influence on disco kings KC & the Sunshine Band, for whom he co-wrote the early single "Sound Your Funky Horn." But when disco died, so did Reid's career at TK. In 2003, to pay bills and taxes, he sold the rights to his catalog, including future royalties—leaving him bitter when the likes of Beyoncé sample his "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do" in her 2006 hit "Upgrade U."

Yet Reid had an alternate career in the 1970s, as a singer-songwriter of raunchy "party record" albums similar to the X-rated comedy albums of Redd Foxx and others. As his alter ego Blowfly, costumed like some camp Batman supervillain on the persona's 1971 debut album The Weird World of Blowfly, he sang dirty song parodies that were funny in a juvenile way and appeared to make a "Can you say that on a record?" impact on nascent musicians who heard them. He went on to release over two dozen albums, as late as 2008's Live at the Platypussery.

In this directorial debut of Jonathan Furmanski, a cinematographer who's shot such documentaries as 2006’s loudQUIETloud: a film about The Pixies, shot over two years, we see Reid taken on as project by Miami writer and drummer Tom Bowker, who puts together a band and arranges a small club tour and, later, a series of German tour dates. We meet his long-estranged but still-admiring family—including daughter Tracy Reid, the 1998 WNBA Rookie of the Year who played with the Charlotte Sting, the Miami Sol and other teams, though the documentary gives only a background clip with no explanation whatsoever. We see Reid's sometimes justified hissy fits with the seat-of-his-pants Bowker, and Bowker's heartfelt but sometimes patronizing attitude toward his star. A lot of incisive day-in-the-life material intercuts with long stretches of stage time and walking around. And while the gushing accolades from big-name fans like Ice-T and Jello Biafra and old employers like TK's Steve Alaimo are important in restoring Reid's place in music, the absence of musicologists and music historians leaves a big hole—one that only accentuates the big question of just what his place in music is.

Reid was a notable songwriter, though a journeyman for the most part. Blowfly was an interesting underground phenomenon. Those two things alone could sustain a modest documentary with far more history and context than this effort ever approaches. But what really sinks this film is its fannish, unquestioning acceptance of Reid's claim that he invented rap with a 1965 record called "Rap Dirty." Even a cursory investigation shows this claim has been debunked—while the song exists, no such record has ever turned up, nor sound clips, nor film clips, nor a catalog number, nor copyright information. Add to this the well-documented history of rap and, just as damningly, the fact that the song is about a long-haul trucker with a CB radio—pop-culture tropes of the 1970s, not the 1960s, before anyone outside of long-haul truckers ever heard of CB radio. I don't fault Furmanski for not being a journalist or a historian. I do fault him for not having one on the project, and for dumping major-claim misinformation out into our body of shared musical knowledge.