Very few Blaxpoitation films match the “cool” factor of Gordon Parks’ seminal SHAFT (1971). And few scores (at least the main title) from the ’70s are as easily recognizable as this classic from Isaac Hayes.
Richard Roundtree stars as detective John Shaft, hired by Harlem mob boss Moses Gunn to find his kidnapped daughter. The film is rife with bad dialogue, terrible acting, cheap production values, violence and sex. And yet it provides its own unique enjoyment primarily due to Roundtree’s smooth and charismatic performance and Hayes’ funky score.
The infectious title song topped the charts (as did the 2-LP soundtrack album) and won an Oscar. From its opening cymbal riffs, the theme is instantly recognizable, even before you get to the wacka-wacka sound of the electric guitar. Piano octaves, flues, organ, trumpets, strings and tambourines match Shaft step for step as he walks the nostalgicly seedy sidewalks of Times Square.
SHAFT wouldn’t have been half as successful without Hayes’ contribution. The score features two more songs, and musical cues for the love scene with Ellie (Gwenn Mitchell) and the espresso scene at Café Regio have become Hayes classics.
The soundtrack album went on to win a Grammy for Best Original Score Written For A Motion Picture Or A Television Special, while the “Theme from Shaft” won for Best Instrumental Arrangement. Hayes’ performance of the song at the Oscars, decked out head to toe in gold chains and surrounded by scantily-clad dancers, is a classic all its own. Hayes’ Oscar win prompted composer David Raksin to resign from the Music Branch “in disgust”.
SHAFT is a classic in the Blaxpoitation genre. In addition to his many years as “Chef” on the SOUTH PARK TV series, Hayes had a cameo (along with Jim Brown and Chris Rock) in my favorite scene from the hilarious 1988 genre spoof, I’M GONNA GET YOU SUCKA.
The score for SHAFT is by no means traditional film scoring, but its funkalicious influence has reached far and wide. If you think that Hayes’ contribution to film music has not stood the test of time, check out this 2007 video of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain in a thoroughly enjoyable—and classic—rendition of the title song.