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Doctor Detroit

Shout Factory // R // April 24, 2018
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted April 15, 2018 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
The ridiculous tale of a professor turned pimp

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: ‘80s movies; weird, cult films; Howard Hesseman
Likes: Dan Aykroyd, Fred Drescher
Dislikes: Plenty of Aykroyd films

The Movie
Dan Aykroyd is one of those comedic actors who's kind of hard to pin down. He does so many different kinds of roles and different kinds of films, that there is no signature Aykroyd style, other than a willingness to try almost anything, from a grounded comedy-tinged drama like My Girl or Driving Miss Daisy (which earned him an Oscar nomination) to bizarre, nonsensical flights of fancy like Nothing But Trouble. No matter the film, however, Aykroyd fits in with his surroundings like a chameleon. That's exactly the case with his first starring role without John Belushi by his side, the insane Doctor Detroit.

The plot is just bonkers: a small-time Chicago pimp named Smooth (the great Howard Hesseman) has run afoul of the more powerful Mom (Kate Murtagh) and to cover for himself, he blames Doctor Detroit, a fictional pimp moving in on the territory. All Smooth has to do is to find someone to be Doctor Detroit so he can skip town, and he discovers his patsy in Clifford Skridlow (Aykroyd), an oddball professor of comparative literature at a nearby college, whose father, the head of the school, is struggling to keep the college solvent. Clifford's personification of the good Doctor is an utterly insane cartoon, and, obviously, it all comes to a head as Mom and Clifford face-off with the college on the line.

Though it seems like there's a lot going on here, there's not a great deal of story to Doctor Detroit, with the college thing existing mainly as added motivation for Clifford and a ticking clock for the movie. Without much plot, there's a good deal of padding in the form of comedic set pieces that stretch out the time to the final fight. Smooth has a quartet of "working girls", led by Donna Dixon (Aykroyd's eventual wife) and Fran Drescher, and they are responsible for convincing Clifford to take on his new role and help him in return for keeping them safe from Mom. The girls are certainly entertaining, whether they are mixing with academics or dancing along with Clifford at The Player's Ball. If you removed their sections of the film--which you could without damaging the film dramatically (except maybe the coda)--you'd end up with maybe enough for an extra-long episode of the weirdest sitcom ever.

None of this is to say that director Michael Pressman or his cast--including the always likable T.K. Carter as the girls' driver--aren't giving their all. Aykroyd is going full guns at every character he plays, while Hesseman is as charming and fun as his iconic Johnny Fever. And the set pieces can be genuinely enjoyable, particularly a big dance number featuring The James Brown. (Music is a big part of the film's draw, with cuts from Devo, Rick James and Brown.)

The problem lies with the very core of the film. When you have a character as bold and unusual as Doctor Detroit, with his clenched-teeth growl and his metal hand, the comedy needs to be equally unrestrained tobe effective, and the film is generally very much a standard studio comedy with a few unique flourishes. If the movie put the same effort into pushing the envelope that it did in destroying fashion standards with the lead's outfits, it could have been a genuine oddball classic.

The Disc
Doctor Detroit arrives on Blu-ray as part of the Shout Select line (#45) in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with newly-arranged, and oddly altered cover art on the retail side and an older-style alternate on the inside. The disc features a mildly-animated menu with options to watch the film, adjust languages, select scenes and check out the extras, as well as a loop of James Brown from the film. There are no audio options, while subtitles are available in English.

The Quality
The box makes no mention of any remastering for the 1.85:1, AVC-encoded 1080p transfer here, but that doesn't mean it doesn't look good on your big screen, as the image is clean and crisp, with a high level of fine detail to enjoy. Color is a big part of the film (to the point of garishness) and this disc reproduces that well, without becoming overbearing, particularly when it come to the vibrant reds on display, while fleshtones are appropriate. Black levels are nice and deep (a key with much of the film shot at night), with a consistent grain structure in place. While it's not pristine, there's nothing in the image in terms of dirt or damage that's going to distract from a viewing.

The film's original mono audio is delivered via a center-balanced DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, and it does the job, ensuring the dialogue is clear and there's appropriate separation between the music and voices. The great soundtrack is sufficiently strong where it is supposed to be, making for a pleasant listen.

The Extras
When Doctor Detroit was released on DVD back in 2005, there were no extras to be had. Shout! Has corrected that by throwing a healthy collection of bonus content onto this disc, starting with a new commentary from director Michael Pressman and Blu-ray producer Russell Dyball. With Dyball acting as moderator, prompting Pressman with questions about the film, the director recaps the origins of the film from the original novella through the changes that occured on the way to the screen. Among the topics covered are the development of the Doctor Detroit character, the casting of the core ladies of the night, legal issues with Harold Robbins and the film's failure at the box office. Unique to this track, compared to many comedies, is discussion of comedic theory and how it influenced the way the film was shot and framed, making it of specific interest to comedy nerds.

Pressman returns for a new 24:35 on-camera interview, where he covers a lot of the same topics as his commentary, but add in some notes about the legacy of the film and his career as a whole, along with notes about how comedy films age as well as working with James Brown and the party atmosphere on the set.

Something quite different arrives in the form of "Radio Free Detroit: Inside the Doctor Detroit Audio Press Kit" (24:29). This featurette allows you to hear excerpts from a 2-LP set sent to radio stations, with interviews, audio clips and songs intended to help promote Doctor Detroit. Included here are responses from Hesseman, Dixon, Devo and Aykroyd, who covers a great deal of his life and career--including SNL and talk of John Belushi's death--all with on-screen text explaining what you're hearing. There are also some truly big-name Aykroyd collaborators on hand to talk about working with the comedian.

There's a 3:49 reel of 2 trailers, including one aggressive screed against home -video--the kind of unique trailer that would be great to see make a comeback. That's followed by a 1:01 pair of TV promos, and 4:14 of radio promos, which play over a still of the ladies. Wrapping things up is a surprisingly silent automatic photo gallery, which checks in at 8:18, and moves at a pretty brisk pace, making for a lot of images.

The Bottom Line
Doctor Detroit is a generally ridiculous film featuring Aykroyd as a not-quite-wannabe pimp with a metal hand and a warm-hearted crew of prostitutes, but it never reaches the comedic heights that its out-there premise suggests. The four main actresses are enjoyable to watch, as are Hesseman and Carter, and they--along with an excellent soundtrack--fill out the film around Aykroyd as he cuts loose in what could be considered an early SNL film, in which the cartoonish main character reigns over all other elements. Shout! has presented this ‘80s cult comedy in great shape, and tossed in a solid set of extras that will appeal to fans of Aykroyd, whether they like the movie or not, making it well worth checking out (though if you remember it fondly, keep those expectations in check.)

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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