Sorting out who is and who isn’t in the 1971 “comedy” movie Dynamite Chicken, written and directed by Ernest Pintoff, is no easy matter. The montage-heavy movie relies so much on found footage that it’s accurate to say that John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Lenny Bruce, Malcolm X, Humphrey Bogart, and Richard Nixon “appear” in the movie even if they were scarcely aware of it or, in some cases, were long since deceased at the time. Not to put too fine a point on it, the makers of the movie were verging pretty close to fraud here.
Richard Pryor they definitely had, as well as a lot of countercultural figures like Paul Krassner, Tuli Kupferberg, Joan Baez, Sha-Na-Na, Peter Max, and a comedy troupe called Ace Trucking Co. that featured a young Fred Willard. The movie’s a bit like Kentucky Fried Movie, only far more political in intent; it’s chock-a-block with skits, snippets of musical performance, political debate, a strip-tease or two, and whatever else popped into the noggins of the filmmakers at the time. There’s tons of quick-cutting montage of newspaper clippings and just a ton of random footage.
The full title, “Dynamite Chicken: A Contemporary Probe and Commentary of the Mores and Maladies of Our Age … with Schtick, Bits, Pieces, Girls, Some Hamburger, a Little Hair, a Lady, Some Fellas, Some Religious Stuff, and a Lot of Other Things,” is an accurate reflection of what the movie is like. The emphasis here is squarely on free expression; the movie starts with a scroll explaining, in a way we today associate more with Lenny Bruce, that Richard Pryor had been witnessed “in the late ‘60’s” by a policewoman saying the words “bullshit, shit, motherfucker, penis, asshole” during a public performance. The distance between “free expression” and “annoying the audience for the sake of it” is pretty small, and in addition to some salubrious footage of women in various states of disrobe, we also get a pointless and somewhat sickening exegesis of a comic book about slicing women in two with a buzzsaw. Early on, I had been thinking that Chicken Dynamite is an almost perfect cinematic equivalent of SCREW Magazine, when who should materialize on the screen but Al Goldstein and Jim Buckley themselves.
Andy Warhol was one of the few luminaries who apparently did consent to be filmed, for a short sequence in which Ondine reads aloud from Warhol’s book a: A Novel while Warhol looks on. John and Yoko weren’t involved; their bit is just a statement about peace from the Montreal Bed-In a couple years earlier. The link to National Lampoon, mostly a spiritual one, is made explicit with a clip of Michael O’Donoghue, then one of the chief writers at the magazine, in a spoof of a cigarette commercial. There’s a bit towards the end in which Ron Carey (known to me primarily as a bit player on Barney Miller) dresses up as a priest and does some soft-shoe in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave., scored to Lionel Goldbart’s “God Loves Rock and Roll” that is pretty delightful.
The footage with Pryor was shot outdoors in a single day; Pryor riffs on a bunch of raunchy material while messing with a basketball somewhere in the projects. At this point in Pryor’s career, the similarities with Dave Chappelle were (in hindsight) particularly strong. After Pryor became a big movie star in the early 1980s, he apparently became annoyed with his association with Chicken Dynamite, as he successfully sued to bar “the distributors of the film ... from emphasizing his role in the film,” according to an issue of Jet from December 1982.
In the end, Chicken Dynamite was probably a little bit dated even when it came out. It’s a movie made by people who are waaaaay too “serious” to be funny, for the most part. It’s the kind of movie that even if you are “enjoying” it, you might choose to turn it off before reach the end of its 75-minute running time, just because it wears you out. Still, some parts are pretty entertaining, and it’s worth a look for those who missed the era and those who didn’t.