This year’s Jheri Curl June Ladies’ Week closes on a bittersweet note, because we’re talking about Vanity: a tragic chapter in the jheri curl chronicle. Born Denise Katrina Matthews in Niagra Falls, Ontario, Vanity is best known as one of the cogs in Prince‘s early-’80s machine–indeed, she was arguably the most critically reviled of his many protégées (at least until Carmen Electra came along). After her association with Prince ended during pre-production for Purple Rain, her place in the musical narrative only declined: there was a floundering solo career, a debilitating addiction to freebase cocaine, a kidney transplant due to the ravages of substance abuse, and finally a conversion to evangelical Christianity that led her to renounce everything associated with her former life.
It’s obviously not within my power to rehabilitate Vanity’s place in the popular music canon–nor, necessarily, is it fully worth rehabilitating (I mean, have you listened to “Pretty Mess“?) But I do think she’s gotten a raw deal. The one album released under the name Vanity 6 is–like its “sister album,” the Time‘s What Time is It?–one of the great forgotten Prince records of the early ’80s; and, while the Purple One per usual ghost-wrote and -recorded the bulk of the music, it was Vanity’s sassy sex appeal that really sold it (don’t even try and tell me you wouldn’t have gotten down with Vanity circa “Nasty Girl“). And then, of course, there’s The Last Dragon.
The Last Dragon wasn’t Vanity’s first film role; as “D.D. Winters,” she had appeared in the 1980 Jamie Lee Curtis slasher movie Terror Train and, later that same year, starred in the bizarre exploitation film Tanya’s Island as, per Wikipedia, “a young woman caught up in a love-triangle with her aggressive boyfriend and a wild ape-man on an imaginary tropical island.” Clearly, however, it was her highest-profile project since she dropped out of Purple Rain. Executive produced by Berry Gordy for Motown Productions–the last theatrical feature to be credited to the company–The Last Dragon was an attempt to cash in on both the African American community’s longstanding affinity for kung-fu films and on Motown’s admittedly dwindling mid-’80s roster of musical artists. As arguably the label’s most bankable young starlet–which says more about Motown’s fortunes at the time than it does about Vanity’s–the aspiring model-singer-actress was a natural choice for the female lead.
The male lead–the titular “Last Dragon” himself–was played by a genuine newcomer: 19-year-old black belt Taimak (surname Guarriello–apparently Motown thought that the more mononyms they had in their cast, the better), who, to no one’s surprise, reportedly learned to act while on the set of the film. The film’s plot, written by Louis Venosta, revolves principally around Taimak’s character, Leroy Green–known around his Harlem neighborhood as “Bruce Leroy”–as he seeks the final step in his martial arts training, a powerful aura known as “the Glow.” He is impeded in his journey by Sho’nuff, the “Shogun of Harlem” (Julius Carry): a cartoonish gang leader and rival martial artist–because 1980s Harlem was apparently swimming in kung-fu practitioners–who is inexplicably convinced that the only thing standing between him and “total supremacy” is defeating Leroy in single combat.
Of course, this being a Motown production, equal importance is given to the soundtrack, and that’s where Vanity comes in. She plays “Laura Charles” (possibly the only recorded example of an actress’ offscreen name being flashier than her onscreen one): a V.J. for a local club and television program called “7th Heaven,” who gets into hot water when she refuses to play a music video by the girlfriend of local mobster and video arcade mogul Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney). The music video conceit gives Gordy and Last Dragon director Michael Schultz (also responsible for the 1978 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, and later for the 1987 Fat Boys vehicle Disorderlies) the excuse to take up significant amounts of screen time literally showing music videos by Motown artists: including “Rhythm of the Night,” the Caribbean-flavored (and hilariously effete) hit single by jheri-curled sibling group DeBarge.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this music-video business has to do with Leroy and his quest for the Glow. Well, Laura and Leroy cross paths when he sees her being kidnapped by Arkadian’s goons and comes to her rescue; Laura recruits Leroy as her bodyguard and, eventually–despite their kind of distressing seven-year age difference and Leroy’s lack of romantic “moves”–they fall in love. Oops, spoilers. But really, nobody is here for a gripping narrative. The reason we’re highlighting The Last Dragon as a milestone of Jheri Curl Cinema has very little to do with plot machinations, or even with “Bruce Leroy”‘s quest for self-enlightenment, and everything to do with the music.
Let’s be clear here: The Last Dragon is far from the greatest soundtrack of its era. It is, however, a characteristic one, and sometimes we can learn the most about a genre from its banalities. So, of course, we have the ultimate banality of mid-’80s Motown, Rockwell, whose “Peeping Tom” revisits the paranoid themes of his 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” with diminishing returns but a more pronounced jheri-curl sound. We have the largely forgotten singer Alfie with “Star,” a charming bit of jheri-pop that revisits the island feel of “Rhythm of the Night” (had Berry Gordy just come back from a tropical cruise when the soundtrack was conceived, or what?). And we also have some interesting stabs at contemporary sounds by veteran Motown artists like Willie Hutch, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. Of those elder stars’ contributions, the pickings are decidedly mixed. Hutch’s “The Glow” is a weird guilty-pleasure mix of old-school electro-rap and mid-’80s victory rock; Wonder’s “Upset Stomach” is a catchy slice of synth-soul with a shockingly dumb lyrical conceit (“I’ve got an upset stomach from a broken heart”?); and the less said about “First Time on a Ferris Wheel,” Robinson’s schmaltzy duet with Syreeta Wright, the better.
But we started this post with Vanity, and to her we must return. Her performance of original song “7th Heaven” is the weirdest thing in, need I remind you, a movie that also features a deranged “video-game king” and a 6’5″ man in a samurai outfit with shutter shades. I don’t know how much of her stage presence can be attributed to poor direction, or poor judgment, or what was by all accounts an already-burgeoning cocaine dependency, but it certainly seems to be some combination of all three; her robotic dance moves are just bonkers, and the wild-eyed way she delivers the bridge in a borderline-demonic whisper–“Nevahh say nevaaaahhhhh”–simply defies rational explanation. It should come as no surprise that the song–along with Dwight David’s definitively cheesy title theme–was a nominee for the 1985 Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Original Song.” And yet, it’s also a great moment. I’m glad it exists. It’s wonderfully eccentric; a camp classic, just like the film itself.
In case you can’t already tell, The Last Dragon is not a good film. It’s not even a particularly important one, like our first Jheri Curl Cinema pick, Purple Rain. But it’s incredibly charming, and that’s why it’s still well-remembered to this day. Not all of it has aged well, of course. The film’s haphazard mishmash of Asian cultural tropes–with a Black Bruce Lee devotee who calls his parents “mama-san” and “papa-san,” a trio of mesh-shirted fortune cookie factory guards who like to smoke blunts and shoot craps, and a comic-relief sidekick who on two occasions describes himself as “Oriental”–would never pass muster in this era of cultural sensitivity, and good riddance, to be frank. Yet it’s a fun, goofy mess of a movie; and if you can’t see the sublime brilliance of the scene where Leroy’s jive-talking little brother (played by Leo O’Brien, the younger brother of Master Gee from the Sugarhill Gang) pop-and-locks his way out of the ropes he’s tied up in, then I don’t want to be friends with you.
And really, I feel much the same way about Vanity. Make no mistake: her post-Vanity 6 career was a disaster, and her descent into addiction was both harrowing and incredibly sad. As for her acting chops–well, about the best I can say is she at least doesn’t come across as completely demented, which is more than I can say about her singing. But she’s an indelible part of The Last Dragon, the jheri-curl era, and the ’80s in general. She, too, is a camp classic; and if that isn’t the most conventional way to be remembered, it’s far from an illegitimate one (just ask Joan Crawford). So, if any aspiring drag queens are out there reading this, looking for a new addition to their repertoires, might I offer Vanity for your consideration? Denise Matthews almost certainly wouldn’t appreciate it–evangelical Christian, remember–but I like to think that somewhere, the lost soul known as Vanity would smile. And maybe offer to lend you her gorilla-fur coat.
Listen to six selections from The Last Dragon soundtrack, including Vanity’s “7th Heaven,” in the Spotify playlist below: