Step Off, Homeboy: Thirty Years of "Disorderlies"
August 10, 2017| by James Greene, Jr.
Disorderlies is probably the only film in cinematic history that contains a sequence in which 1960s surf deities the Beach Boys are nearly shot to death in a Domino’s Pizza by overzealous fans who can’t keep a firm grip on the rifles they’re carrying en route to safari (I say “probably” because I haven’t seen The Ghost and the Darkness). The Lee Harveys in question are Mark Morales, Damon Wimbley, and Darren Robinson; perhaps you know them better by their stage names of Prince Markie D, Kool Rock-Ski, and Human Beat Box Buff Love. Yes, the Fat Boys, legendary old-school trio who star in Disorderlies and who were in many ways the Beach Boys of hip-hop. Other groups earned more respect in the long run, but you can’t deny the vibrance, fun, and inventive spark that courses through their music. This architecture was no accident — as Buff Love himself remarked in 1986, “We rap to make people happy.”
By 1987, the Fat Boys had raised spirits across three albums of boisterous beat boxing and rhyme. They’d also proven their charisma on camera, stealing a number of scenes in 1985’s groundbreaking hip-hop showcase movie Krush Groove. It would have been stupid, many in the industry believed, not to put the Fat Boys in their own big screen vehicle at this juncture. And so Krush Groove producer / director Michael Schultz (he also of Cooley High fame) signed on for Disorderlies, the story of three Brooklyn nursing home employees whose constant bumbling and misadventure puts them on the radar of conniving nogoodnik Winslow Lowry. Lowry believes he might accelerate his wealthy Uncle Albert’s demise (and subsequent inheritance) by hiring Mark, Kool, and Buff as caretakers for Albert in his luxurious Palm Beach mansion. What this gaunt fraudster doesn’t bargain for is the shine his uncle quickly takes to the Fat Boys. It’s only a matter of time before we see Ralph Bellamy as the convalescing Albert grunt to Anthony Geary’s shocked Winslow, “Step off, homeboy!”
Viewing Disorderlies 30 years after the fact, it’s hard to grasp what is preventing this hip-hop comedy from absorbing the same brand of cult adoration and respect afforded to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Disorderlies certainly moves faster on the same goofy, good-natured spirit, and every single Fat Boy is a better actor than all of the Ramones combined. That said, it’s probably easier for the average viewer to tap into a teenage romance star-crossed against punk rock as opposed to this tale of twenty-something rappers stumbling through in-home nursing for a resident of Palm Beach. The Ramones also have several performance pieces in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (including an abbreviated concert in front of a real paying audience). Unless you count some of the incidental music in Disorderlies that mixes in portions of Buff Love’s beat boxing, the Fat Boys ply their musical trade just once in this magnum cinematic opus, belting out their lively cover of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.”
Verily, the Fat Boys put their stamp on a Beatles classic, though they take astounding liberties with the beat and melody (as opposed to the Fat Boy versions of “The Twist” and “Louie Louie,” which one can recognize from almost the moment they begin). Fat Boys lore couches a possibly apocryphal story wherein the Boys called Michael Jackson — who owned the Beatles publishing at the time — from the set of Disorderlies to make sure they had the okay for this rendition of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.” MJ was apparently cool to the idea in general but gave his gloved blessing regardless. Later, the yarn goes, Paul McCartney (who was already not thrilled with what Jackson had been licensing of Beatles material since acquiring the publishing in 1985) heard the Fat Boys doing “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” and had a last straw moment. Macca began trying to think of ways to get his songs back. Alas, Paulio never managed to wrestle control out of MJ’s magical palms; the King of Pop merged the Beatles catalog with Sony in 1995; the conglomerate took control of Jackson’s stake following the singer’s 2009 death.
So Paul McCartney probably doesn’t watch Disorderlies very often. That’s okay; even though I would without hesitation label myself a Fat Boys super fan, I have only sat through this movie twice in my 38 years. The biggest sin of Disorderlies is that it neglects to give the Fat Boys separate and distinct personalities. During an outing clearly meant to evoke the spirit of the Three Stooges, the individuals of this trio all come across like a hybrid of Moe and Curly — assertive but numb-skulled (this makes bed ridden Uncle Albert the Larry). Still, the Boys do a great job with what they’re given. Their bug-eyed reaction shots often elicit a laugh, and Buff Love does a lot of funny muttering under his breath.
Disorderlies was unleashed on August 14, 1987, the same day the Fat Boys released their fourth album, Crushin’, which includes a remake of the Surfaris’ “Wipeout” they collaborated on with aforementioned LBJ-era studs the Beach Boys. Our groundbreaking rappers’ dreams of a cinematic franchise may have folded like a lawn chair that week — Disorderlies was never going to compete with Masters of the Universe, The Care Bears Adventures in Wonderland, Who’s that Girl, or beloved Swayze property Dirty Dancing — but Crushin’ crushed, hitting #8 on the Billboard pop chart and eventually going platinum (the only Fat Boys effort to do so). Thus, the dynasty built upon “Brrr, Stick ‘Em” continued over three more LPs and a few appearances on public television lynchpin “Square One.”
One can say this: Disorderlies is without question the best film ever made that includes cameo appearances by Helen Reddy, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, and Ray Parker, Jr. Any piece of art that suggests Helen Reddy is down with the Disco 3 cannot be completely terrible.
Watch the trailer:
"Baby, You're a Rich Man"