Mixed Blood and the Music of Paul Morrissey’s Gangsters

The only movie images displayed in Rodney Harvey’s tragic E! True Hollywood Story I never forgot—when I saw it in 1999—belonged to Mixed Blood (1984), his film debut. I wasn’t familiar with anything from his filmography at the time, although I had seen Salsa (1988) as a kid. And it wasn’t until early January of this year that I finally got around to realizing the quality of his work.

I must have seen Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1974) not long after watching that documentary, because about that time was when I got myself a Laserdisc player. (It was also the first Laserdisc that I bought for a friend.) Blood for Dracula (1974) is one of my favorite black comedies, which I tend to revisit year after year. It’s the only tale of the Count where he has to drink virgin blood in order to survive—which he has a hard time trying to find—and where his adversary is a communist. Actors Udo Kier and Joe Dallesandro are unforgettable in their roles, as is Arno Juerging as Anton (Dracula’s servant). But it’s writer/director Morrissey’s dialogue and style that gives it its unique flavor.

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) was to be the only other Morrissey flick I would see until years later, when I spotted Mixed Blood available for instant streaming through my rental provider. And it wasn’t until that moment that I became aware that the one memorable Rodney Harvey film I had seen clips of long ago was directed by the same talent behind Blood for Dracula.

Four minutes into it, when all of a sudden I heard Willie Colón’s Che Che Cole kick in with a tracking shot of Rita La Punta (played brilliantly by Marília Pêra) leading her Maceteros into their rival gang’s turf, I had a smile on my face that stayed there predominantly throughout the picture.

According to Morrissey, the impetus for the film—which discloses its setting—came from a New York Times article, which regarded the drug trade going on in vacant buildings in New York’s Lower East Side. Having the opportunity to work with his “favorite actress of all time” (Marília Pêra), Morrissey next had to decide upon how best to use her. Drawing inspiration from Pépé Le Moko (1937), he chose to tell the story of a Brazilian woman (La Punta, or “the Spike”) who runs a gang of underage kids that hustles drugs and tries to drive off her competition (the Master Dancers).

Were it not for the perfectly hand-picked, relatively unknowns Morrissey discovered (with a little help from his casting agent), the film might have been completely overbalanced by Marília Pêra of Brazil’s 1981 masterpiece Pixote. She’s a powerhouse of an actress.

Rita La Punta: Get on clothes. And put on some clean underwear. Suppose they took you to prison with this dirty underwear.

Had it not been for the backing out of a Brazilian soccer player, who was to play her son, the character rewritten especially for the irreplaceable Cuban Mariel refugee Richard Ulacia (Thiago) would not have given the film what it needed to make it whole. Morrissey loves people with accents in his films, and Richard’s is priceless. He was a good sport for putting up with having his character rewritten and treated as mentally challenged, because of his manner of speech. Rodney Harvey plays Jose, his right-hand man.

After a meeting between a corrupt police official and a local crime boss (Hector), along with an outsider German supplying drugs to both the Master Dancers and the Macateros, a decision is made to intervene into their troublemaking, potential war.

The German’s female companion (Carol), upon meeting Thiago, stirs the pot even more by posing a threat to La Punta’s grasp on her son, as well as arousing his interest in leaving his confined environment. Even though, she’s just having teen-like fun with him.

Thiago: You like Thiago?

Carol: Thiago, I think your mother has the wrong idea about us.

Thiago: You stay with me. You belong to the chief.

Carol: You mean like in the jungle?

Thiago: Don’t make fun of me. I don’t like it.

If things aren’t messy enough, a mid-teen (Comanche) has come to town seeking revenge against Thiago for crippling his brother. He manages to sneak his way into the Maceteros gang as a spy for the Dancers, despite Thiago’s strong distrust of him.

I tend to dislike it when a film uses the same song(s) more than once, but the use of Mixed Blood’s outstanding soundtrack is exceptional (links provided below). The Hector Lavoe tracks are outstanding, and Jose Gallardo’s Amanecer is particularly beautiful. But when I heard Wilfredo Vargas’ El Africano during a family party, just before a major shootout occurs, I was texting my brother and a couple of friends about the film, eager to share the experience.

Having grown up in my mom’s record shop, and having had the enormous pleasure of working in the record distribution industry, I received a great deal of exposure to a large variety of music; many things I might not have ever gone on to appreciate on my own. Including the music of New York-based Fania Records, where many of these recording artists rose to stardom. Although I was born and raised in South Florida, I tended to overlook my Hispanic heritage and culture throughout my youth. Once I began to take advantage of my second language, I discovered a gateway to enjoying other cultures which would allow anyone to broaden their perspective on life and the many roads of experience there are to travel. This film reminded me of those feelings, by mixing different groups on one turf and allowing us to laugh along with all of our petty human dramas and small-minded greediness. It’s a memorable period piece, with plenty to offer in entertainment, as well as for those of us studying storytelling techniques.

Richard Ulacia as Thiago, Marília Pêra as Rita La Punta, and Rodney Harvey as Jose.

Soundtrack Listing:

  • Amanecer composed by Jose Gallardo, performed by Mongo Santamaria.
  • Che Che Cole composed by Willie Colón, sung by Hector Lavoe.
  • Noche De Farra composed by Armando M. Dwalff, performed by Hector Lavoe.
  • Songoro Consongo composed by E. Grenet and N. Guillen, performed by Hector Lavoe.
  • El Africano composed by Calixto Ochoa, performed by Wilfredo Vargas. (My favorite.)
  • Tico-Tico music by Z. Abreu, words by A. Oliveira, performed by Marília Pêra.

Geraldine Smith as Toni (left), a prostitute working for La Punta. Thiago (right), captured by the Dancers.

Linda Kerridge as Carol (left), and Pedro Sanchez as Comanche (right).

Ulrich Berr as “The German” (left), and Marcelino Rivera as Hector (right).

Angel David as “Juan the Bullet” (seated), leader of the Master Dancers.

Photograph References:

  • All of the images posted above and more can be found on Image Entertainment’s DVD Special Features: Production Gallery with Commentary by Director Paul Morrissey.