Easily mistaken for one of the myriad demolition-derby comedies that flooded theaters in the ’70s, Greased Lightning is actually a charming biopic about real-life stock-car racer Wendell Scott, a former bootlegger who rose through his sport in the ’50s and ’60s to become America’s first black stock-car champion. Made with an easygoing vibe and a strong pace by cult-fave director Michael Schultz, the picture stars Richard Pryor in one of his most amiable leading performances. While not completely suppressing his comic gifts, Pryor mostly plays it straight, combining the inherent exuberance of a thrill-seeker with the latent anger of a black Southerner busting through racial barriers prior to the Civil Rights era. The story begins just after World War II, when Wendell (Pryor) returns from the war to his tiny town of Danville, Virginia. He marries local girl Mary (Pam Grier), buys a taxicab, and starts a dodgy business driving the community’s mostly impoverished black residents to and from errands. Eager to make more money, Wendell joins his childhood buddy Peewee (Cleavon Little) running moonshine, soon becoming the scourge of local police with his prowess behind the wheel. When Wendell finally gets caught, he’s given a choice: rot in jail, or compete in a dangerous stock-car race where he’ll be a target as the only black competitor. Wendell chooses the race, thus beginning his storied racing career. Given Wendell’s colorful backstory, the movie loses a little of its novelty value once his racing career begins, but the picture is helped along by a solid cast. Grier is lovely and warm in one of her few non-sensationalized roles of the era; Little adds the same sharp timing he contributed to Blazing Saddles (1974); and Beau Bridges is amiable and loose as a good ol’ boy who unexpectedly joints Wendell’s pit crew. A major sequence about two-thirds of the way through the picture suffers because it’s mostly assembled from stock footage, and in general the movie streamlines Scott’s narrative to a fault, so everything plays out in the most sanitized and simplistic fashion possible. Nonetheless, the picture’s fundamentally interesting story and its thoroughly watchable cast make Greased Lightning a fun romp.
Greased Lightning: FUNKY