It's another day at this car wash in Los Angeles, a place whose selling point is that the cleaning is all done by hand and few machines are used, something its owner, Mr. B (Sully Boyar), takes great pride in, but masks the fact that he's losing money to the automated versions. Something he can't afford is to pay employees who don't turn up, or turn up late, as Duane (Bill Duke) does; he's a militant who you had better call Abdullah or there will be trouble, and his job is on the line. The other employees include T.C. (Franklin Ajaye), an aspiring comic book artist who wants to create black superheroes, but everyone is dreaming of a better life than the car wash...
Car Wash was a substantial hit in the seventies, a loosely assembled, seemingly improvised comedy that was actually scripted by future director Joel Schumacher. Whether its success was down to the catchy soundtrack more than the actual comedy value was debatable, but Rose Royce's classic early disco theme is still heard today, a testament to its longevity. The film, however, is almost treated as an afterthought to the music, and when you see it you'll realise that this was the best part, as the humour is broad and obvious.
But it's not a dead loss, as the ensemble cast worked hard to bring their mainly blue collar characters to life, and they all emerge as having value in the face of the daily grind. The camaraderie is the most important part of their day, when they're not, for example, thinking about going on the stage in a song and dance act as Floyd (Darrow Igus) and Lloyd (DeWayne Jessie) are, or arguing with a girlfriend about going back to college or else their marriage is off. Each of the workers gets their own bit of business, be it humorous or dramatic, and they all paint a vivid picture.
The film is not especially funny anymore, with much of the gags centred around pranks, so there's a fair few instances of people getting soaked with all that water about and the odd indulgence of, say, hot peppers hidden in a sandwich. The cast is notable, including among the better known faces the ever-impressive Duke as the put upon but angry Abdullah, George Carlin as a taxi driver searching for the "tall, blonde, black woman" who dodged a fare, Antonio Fargas as the flamboyant gay Lindy and a guest appearance by Richard Pryor, flanked by The Pointer Sisters no less, as a shady evangelist who is treated as a hero by some.
But for all the hijinks, there's a sense of desperation to these people, as if they are just about keeping their heads above water and using their good humour to cover up their worries, financial and otherwise. When Hippo (James Spinks) gets to enjoy himself with prostitute Marleen (Lauren Jones), the only thing he has to pay her with is his beloved radio, and after the fact he appears to regret his actions. Similarly, T.C.'s drive to win a competition on the radio is approached as funny, but masks his urgent desire to catch a break. It does end happily for most of them, if such a rambling feature can build to something akin to a finale, and there's a mood of optimism that they can all work out their troubles if they are careful. Car Wash is of its time, but interesting with it. Music by Norman Whitfield.