Legendary Filmmaker And Composer Melvin Van Peebles Dies At 89

‘When I did my first short film I needed music and I couldn’t afford to pay anyone, so I had a kazoo and I hummed my soundtrack,’ Van Peebles said.

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Melvin Van Peebles - Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM
Melvin Van Peebles - Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM

Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering African-American filmmaker behind the 1970s films Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, has died. He was 89.

His family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films announced his death in a statement.

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“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the statement read. “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and a revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated for a return to Broadway next year.”

Van Peebles was a renaissance man. He was the author of two Broadway musicals (which between them collected nine Tony Award nominations), eight books, and songs for six albums. He scored Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Watermelon Man. In 2014, he collaborated with The Heliocentrics on The Last Transmission.

Van Peebles was featured in Bruce Pollock’s In Their Own Words: Twenty Successful Song Writers Tell How They Write Their Songs. Regarding his career in music, Van Peebles said, “I got into songs sideways, through the music that I needed for my films. When I did my first short film I needed music and I couldn’t afford to pay anyone, so I had a kazoo and I hummed my soundtrack. That was 1957. I got into it parallel with my other activities.”

He added, “Then, in 1967 or 1968, when I came back to the States from Europe (I’d been gone for six and a half years) I was surprised to find that black music, lyrics-wise anyway, didn’t really mirror any of the everyday aspirations, problems, or lifestyles that were going on. I mean, I felt the lyrics, especially in black music, had almost become just a phonetic accompaniment to the music; whereas you had guys, such as Dylan or Kristofferson, dealing with words, and even pop tunes had more significance – you no longer had the Leadbellys or Blind Lemon Jeffersons.” Van Peebles strived to bring a workingman’s authenticity to his music, which found its way into piece of art he created.

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