Car Wash is a 1976 American comedy film released by Universal Pictures. The film was directed by Michael Schultz from a screenplay by Joel Schumacher. Starring Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, George Carlin, Irwin Corey, Ivan Dixon, Antonio Fargas, Jack Kehoe, Clarence Muse, Lorraine Gary, The Pointer Sisters, Richard Pryor, and Garrett Morris, Car Wash is an episodic comedy about a day in the lives of the employees and the owner, Mr. B (Sully Boyar), of a Los Angeles, California car wash (filmed at a Westlake car wash at the corner of Rampart Boulevard and 6th Street).
Originally conceived as a musical, Car Wash deals with the exploits of a close-knit, multiracial group of employees at a Los Angeles car wash. In an episodic fashion, the film is set over a single day on a Friday in the month of July, during which all manner of strange visitors make cameo appearances, including Lorraine Gary as a hysterical wealthy woman from Beverly Hills dealing with a carsick son. Richard Pryor also appears in a cameo as a money-hungry evangelist named 'Daddy Rich' who preaches a pseudo-gospel of prosperity theology; The Pointer Sisters play the parts of his loyal (and singing) entourage, The Wilson Sisters.
One main character is Abdullah, formerly Duane (Bill Duke), a Black Muslim revolutionary. Among his other misadventures in the film, the employees must deal with a man ("Professor" Irwin Corey) who fits the profile of the notorious "pop bottle bomber" being sought that day by the police. It causes employees, customers, and the owner of the car wash, Mr. B (Sully Boyar), to fear for their lives, but the strange man's "bomb" is simply a urine sample he is taking to the hospital.
Mr. B's son Irwin (Richard Brestoff), a left-wing college student who smokes pot in the men's restroom and carries around a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao, insists on spending a day with the "working class" employees, since he considers them "brothers" in the "struggle". As he gets ready to go to work, he sets off motion sensors that give him the first "human car wash", which he takes in good-natured (if pot-induced) stride.
George Carlin appears as a taxi driver searching fruitlessly for a prostitute who stiffed him for a fare. The prostitute, Marleen, has her own hopes shattered as a customer with whom she apparently has fallen in love has given her a false telephone number.
Ex-con Lonnie (Ivan Dixon) is the foreman of the car wash who tries to mentor Abdullah while struggling to raise two young children and fend off his parole officer (Jason Bernard). Abdullah confronts Lindy (Antonio Fargas) and sharply criticizes his cross-dressing, to which Lindy coolly replies, "I'm more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever get".
T.C. (Franklin Ajaye) is another young employee who is determined to win a radio call-in contest to win tickets for a rock concert and to convince his estranged girlfriend Mona (Tracy Reed), who works as a waitress in a diner across the street, to accompany him.
Floyd and Lloyd are musicians who have an audition for an agent at the end of their shift and spend the entire movie doing their jazz-blues dance moves in front of bewildered customers.
Justin (Leon Pinkney) clashes with his girlfriend, Loretta (Renn Woods), who wants him to go back to college, but he refuses out of the feeling that a black man like him will not get anywhere in the world with any kind of education. Justin's elderly grandfather, Snapper (Clarence Muse), works as the shoe shine man at the car wash and is a follower of Daddy Rich.
Other employees include womanizer Geronimo (Ray Vitte); Scruggs (Jack Kehoe), a cowboy who works as the gas pump operator; Hippo (James Spinks), an overweight employee who clearly hooks up with Marleen the prostitute; Chuco (Pepe Serna), a scheming Latino employee; Goody (Henry Kingi), a Native American employee; Charlie (Arthur French), a scruffy middle-aged employee; Sly (Garrett Morris), a con artist employee and bookie who later gets arrested right at the car wash for a series of unpaid parking tickets; and Earl (Leonard Jackson), who has the attitude of being superior to his colleagues because he does not get wet; he would appear to think that he is the supervisor at the car wash.
Among everything, Mr. B constantly makes passes against the receptionist Marsha (Melanie Mayron) as an escape from his troubled home life. Mr. B is constantly tense and worried throughout the film as he fears about his car wash going out of business due to a competitor a few miles down the street. Lonnie, on the other hand, is full of ideas on how to save the car wash that he cannot get Mr. B or anyone else to listen to, mostly due to Mr. B being a cheapskate.
Later at the end of the movie, Abdullah, after being fired by Mr. B for his unexplained absences, appears in the office with a gun while Lonnie is closing up, intending to rob the business. Lonnie talks him out of it, and the two commiserate at the status society has imposed on them: two proud men forced to work at a meaningless job for meager pay. It is a melancholy ending to the day as they all go their separate ways, knowing that they will be back tomorrow to do it all over again.
- Franklyn Ajaye as T.C./Theodore Chauncy Elcott
- Sully Boyar as Leon 'Mr B.' Barrow
- Richard Brestoff as Irwin Barrow
- Carmine Caridi as Foolish Father
- George Carlin as the Taxi Driver
- Irwin Corey as The Mad Bomber
- Ivan Dixon as Lonnie
- Bill Duke as Duane - Abdullah
- Antonio Fargas as Lindy
- Lauren Jones as Marleen
- Michael Fennell as Calvin
- Arthur French as Charlie
- Lorraine Gary as the Hysterical Lady
- Darrow Igus as Floyd
- Leonard Jackson as Earl
- DeWayne Jessie (a.k.a. Otis Day) as Lloyd
- Jack Kehoe as Scruggs
- Henry Kingi as Goody
- Melanie Mayron as Marsha
- Garrett Morris as Slide
- Clarence Muse as Snapper
- Leon Pinkney as Justin
- The Pointer Sisters as The Wilson Sisters
- Richard Pryor as Daddy Rich
- Tracy Reed as Mona
- Pepe Serna as Chuco
- James Spinks as Hippo
- Ray Vitte as Geronimo
- Renn Woods as Loretta
- Brooke Adams as Terry
- Antonie Becker as Charlene
- Danny DeVito as Joe
- Antar Mubarak as Sonny Fredericks
- Otis Sistrunk as Otis
- Tim Thomerson as Ken
Danny DeVito and Brooke Adams appeared in the movie as Joe and Terry, the owners of a food stand called 'Big Joe's Dog House' which is located next to the car wash. Though they had speaking roles, nearly all of their scenes were deleted from the theatrical version and they are only seen in the background. Their scenes were restored for the edited television version.
The film also featured the speaking voices of local L.A. disc jockeys Jay Butler, J.J. Jackson, Rod McGrew, Sarina C. Grant, and Cleveland's Billy Bass, all heard in the background of the film on the fictional "KGYS" radio station.
Originally the project was intended as a stage production, which would feature a replicate car wash on stage. The hope was that, if successful, the project could be adapted as a movie. Upon telling the idea to then head of Universal Ned Tanen, the producers were persuaded to make the film version instead. Joel Schumacher was chosen to write based on his work writing "Sparkle"
Unusual for film production, the sound track was recorded prior to filming of the movie. The director wanted the actors to actually listen to the same music that would later be added in post-production while filming the scenes.
The film presently has a score of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews, with an average score of 6.8 out of 10.
Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it "a sunny, lively comedy" with a "tremendous sense of life." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "a cheerful, somewhat vulgar, very cleverly executed comedy," adding, "Nothing terribly dramatic happens, and some of the comedy gets a bit forced, but the wonder of the film is how it manages to succeed so much of the time." Gene Siskel gave the film three stars out of four and called it "quite entertaining" with "plenty of strong performances." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "An enormous, and enormously talented, cast is put through its paces masterfully by director Michael Schultz, making the most of Joel Schumacher's zany screenplay." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it "a high-energy, high-entertainment, raucously well-observed slice of life." Sander Vanocur of The Washington Post called it "more than a movie. It's an experience that will make you feel good." "Car Wash" is a wonderful painting of humanity.
While it did well at the box-office, it still fell short of the high expectations Universal had, probably because of the declining market for black-oriented films at the time.
Since the film's initial release, it has had a small but constant following as a cult film, some notable disciples including Michael Bay and Sandford Bay. The film won the Best Music Award and the Technical Grand Prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival plus a nomination for Golden Palm. In the same year it was nominated for a Golden Globe, plus it won a Grammy for Best Album of Original Score written for a Motion Picture or Television Special.
Gay film historian Vito Russo cites the character Lindy, played by Antonio Fargas, as being both funny and challenging through his gay militancy. Russo deems Lindy's response to the militant Abdullah as being potentially revolutionary had it not been placed strictly within a comedic context. African American cultural critic Angela Nelson identifies Lindy as a "sophisticated sissy." The "sophisticated sissy" characterization is often used as an easy contrast to the "appropriate" masculine behaviour that heterosexual black male characters are expected to display.
Car Wash, recorded by Rose Royce, was a major success, yielding three Billboard R&B Top Ten singles: "Car Wash", "I Wanna Get Next to You", and "I'm Going Down". The title track, written and produced by Norman Whitfield, was a #1 hit and was one of the biggest hit singles of the disco era. Meanwhile, The Pointer Sisters' "You Gotta Believe"—which the group performed during their cameo in the film—was a Top Twenty R&B hit. The Car Wash soundtrack won a 1977 Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album.
Car Wash had its network television premiere on NBC Monday Night at the Movies in 1978. Along with the standard dubbing of strong language, many scenes that included the gay character Lindy (Fargas) were trimmed or deleted. To replace these shortened scenes, and therefore shortened film, a subplot of a diner owner (Danny DeVito) (scenes shot for the theatrical version but cut prior to release) were re-inserted. As of 2013, commercially available versions of the movie were of the original theatrical release, not the revised TV version.