Read two critical perspectives on Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, by Dennis Harvey and Jeffrey M. Anderson.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films screens at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 17, 2015 at Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.
|Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films|
By Dennis Harvey
The 1980s was an era of excess in many ways, with a larger-than-life former movie star president and other things that were overscaled: big hair, big shoulder pad fashions, big power ballads, and big problems (homelessness suddenly became a significant issue in this alleged era of prosperity, while the crack epidemic brought unprecedented levels of drug-related crime and general harm to many communities). Continue reading →
|Enter the Schlockmeisters
by Jeffrey M. Anderson
Like Quentin Tarantino, I used to work in a video store, renting VHS cassettes and talking movies with cinema lovers in my town. During my time there, many Cannon Films releases decorated the shelves. They rarely figured in any over-the-counter discussions, even if they moved out the door readily enough. Continue reading →
By Dennis Harvey
The 1980s was an era of excess in many ways, with a larger-than-life former movie star president and other things that were overscaled: big hair, big shoulder pad fashions, big power ballads, and big problems (homelessness suddenly became a significant issue in this alleged era of prosperity, while the crack epidemic brought unprecedented levels of drug-related crime and general harm to many communities).
Even the movies became bigger, louder, dumber. If the defining films of the 1970s were grown-up sagas like The Godfather and Chinatown, the ensuing decade’s mega-hits seemed designed for the same juvenile, instant-gratification mindset that made video games a colossal rival entertainment industry almost overnight.
Where 70s cinema was full of self-doubting “antiheroes,” 80s movies were all about cartoonishly uncomplicated he-men heroes like Stallone in Rambo and Rocky, a smirking Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Indiana Jones, Schwarzenegger, and Superman. Even “chick flicks” like Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, and An Officer and a Gentleman seemed to have a new “We’re the best and f—- the rest!” tilt in which fulfillment inevitably meant the heroine or romantic leads being cheered by an adoring throng.
None of those particular leading box-office triumphs were made by Cannon Film Group, the subject of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, which plays just one 7 p.m. show at SF’s Embarcadero Center Cinema on Thursday, September 17.
Cannon managed to be more truly 1980s than its more moneyed competitors. As Mark Hartley’s deliriously entertaining documentary demonstrates, Cannon’s dramatic rise and fall was Hollywood’s Reagan era in a steroid-engorged nutshell: flashy, trashy, imitative, populist, over-confident, and more than a little corrupt. Even its self-destruction was sort of spectacularly shameless. If you see just one good movie this year about (mostly) bad movies, make it Electric Boogaloo.
Hartley has made a specialty of such cinematic-history investigations, having already crafted documentaries about the once-burgeoning exploitation film industries of his native Australia (2008’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!) and the Philippines (2010’s Machete Maidens Unleashed!). But Boogaloo has more dirt and star wattage than those two combined. It also has a lot more fun value than The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, a contrastingly almost dirt-free version of the same story that was commissioned by Cannon’s founders, who use it to burnish their maverick image while stubbornly refusing to discuss what one trade publication politely termed “the company’s suspected financial shenanigans.”
Cannon was the brainchild of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, cousins whose success in Israeli cinema led them to branch into international, English-language projects around the mid-1970s. By the beginning of the next decade, they were ready (albeit partly because a string of flops had forced them to sell their prior corporation) to move across the Atlantic and conquer Hollywood.
Their tactics, however, weren’t exactly rife with old-school Hollywood panache. Instead, they bought scripts by the truckload, rushed films heedlessly into production, employed fading or second-string talent, and rode on the coattails of other studios’ successes. They made many lower-budget Rambo imitations as well as cheap slasher horrors, teen sex comedies, break-dancing musicals, and so forth. While these won no critical acclaim, they did generally turn a tidy profit, which was funneled into larger enterprises like lavish (if short-lived) Los Angeles headquarters and bigger genre films. They even created a few stars of their own, from Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme to the lesser-remembered Michael Dudikoff.
Golan (who sometimes directed their films) and Globus’ risk-taking was by no means limited to cinematic schlock. They used their ever-fluid capital to bankroll some very lofty projects, including films by Cassavetes (Love Streams), Zeffirelli (the opera Otello), Godard (King Lear) and Russian émigré Andrei Konchalovsky (Oscar-nominated Runaway Train). These were noble if usually money-losing ventures. Less noble but still financially disastrous were the expensive boondoggles like Tobe Hooper’s space-vampire horror Lifeforce and Over the Top, the latter managing to fumble Sylvester Stallone’s macho box-office lure by casting him as the lead in a movie about arm wrestling. As one observer puts it, the producers “loved the intersection of ideas that should never meet each other,” frequently misjudging audience tastes as a result. This led to camp classics such as the stupefying rock musical The Apple (now a midnight-movie favorite) and Ninja III: The Domination (a martial-arts Flashdance meets The Exorcist).
Endlessly ambitious but also alarmingly undiscriminating, the cousins continued to overextend their operations — often grandly announcing projects allegedly involving stars and directors who
hadn’t even been approached — with funds that existed only on paper, if that. It was probably not a good move to let soon-to-be-disgraced junk bond king Michael Milken raise $300 million for the company. By the time the SEC began investigating Cannon’s questionable accounting practices, the whole operation was in serious trouble. Several films were left unfinished and unreleasable. The one film Cannon hoped would finally take it to the major leagues, Superman IV: Quest for Peace, wound up stranded without money for the elaborate special effects it had been conceived around. (The resulting shoddy end product killed a hitherto lucrative franchise for nearly two decades.)
As their empire crumbled, the cousins themselves had a falling out, with the weird consequence that each released a competing lambada-dance-craze movie on the same day in 1990. Eventually, both retreated to Israel, their future producing efforts considerably downscaled. (Golan died last year at age 85.)
Electric Boogaloo is full of hilarious vintage clips and even more hilarious anecdotes, though none from Golan or Globus. (You’d have to see Go-Go Boys for that.) We get to hear Bo Derek recall how the producers stole private photos from her luggage to promote the dreadful Bolero. Richard Chamberlain and others discuss what a displeasure it was for them to work with Sharon Stone on the Allan Quatermain adventure films, even before Basic Instinct made her an actual star. We also get the story of how an orangutan came to be played by a monkey-suited midget in the comedy Going Bananas (the originally cast real orangutan bit the lead actor). Plus much more — including, of course, the bad blood that still flows between the stars of 1984’s immortal Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
While some good movies and fond memories were made, what many interviewees like Franco Nero, Molly Ringwald, Dolph Lundgren and others recall here is more in the realm of a comedy of errors. Filmmaking is an inexact business at best, and only sometimes an art. For a few inglorious but memorable years, Cannon Films turned shaky business decisions and worse artistic ones into a high-wire act so feckless it renders Mark Hartley’s chronicle at least as entertaining as anything Golan and Globus actually put onscreen.Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.
by Jeffrey M. Anderson
Like Quentin Tarantino, I used to work in a video store, renting VHS cassettes and talking movies with cinema lovers in my town. During my time there, many Cannon Films releases decorated the shelves. They rarely figured in any over-the-counter discussions, even if they moved out the door readily enough. I myself was often fascinated by the lurid box covers and confess to having checked out things like Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, The Delta Force, and Cobra, although I couldn’t work up the courage to pick up some of the ones I secretly wanted to see; what would people think?
The enthusiastic new documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, directed by the Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley — who also gave us the equally enthusiastic Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (note the exclamation points) — puts these 1980s schlock movies in a kind of historical perspective. They are no longer forgotten stepchildren, and they can now be enjoyed (if “enjoyed” is the word) as part of a certain movement in cinema history.
The brains behind this operation were, of course, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and the documentary paints them as a kind of missing link between Roger Corman, the Weinsteins and Jerry Bruckheimer. They were crackpot geniuses at one end, and, at the other, inspired much head-shaking and even downright hatred. “Here’s what I think of Cannon Films,” says actress Laurene Landon on camera, as she produces a VHS copy of her film America 3000 and ignites it with a lighter.
Golan was a prolific filmmaker in Israel who lived and breathed cinema, and of course decided to come to Hollywood; it’s curious as to why director Hartley decided to leave out details of Golan’s brief association with Corman. Instead he makes it sound as if Golan hit the ground running, shooting things like Schizoid with Klaus Kinski just weeks after arriving. His younger cousin Globus was apparently the more business-minded of the two, and they made a formidable team.
Taking over the struggling Cannon, Golan tried to fulfill his dream of becoming the next Fellini by making The Apple, which is still considered one of the worst musicals ever made, but today may have a small cult following somewhere in the world. Golan didn’t quite give up his dream of being a director, and personally handled some of the studio’s more prominent titles, including Enter the Ninja, The Delta Force, and Over the Top. The pair quickly embarked upon a scheme of selling movies in advance based on their posters. They also lined up stars like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson, and discovered new ones like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Dudikoff.
They specialized in sex and nudity, reworking an Israeli hit, Lemon Popsicle, into The Last American Virgin. They showed off the assets of Bo Derek in Bolero, Sybil Danning in Hercules, and Sylvia Kristel in Mata Hari and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The director of the latter, Just Jaeckin, says that, judging by their notes, he realized that neither of the cousins had ever read the book. (Sex was more important than narrative value.) Hercules director Luigi Cozzi says that he wanted to make an adventure film for kids, but his producers insisted on oral sex.
Some interviewees talk about the cousins’ Frankenstein-like tendencies, marrying bits and pieces from other successful movies into bizarre hybrids, like Ninja III: The Domination, which not only cribbed from previous ninja films, but also from The Exorcist and Flashdance. The trouble, according to the documentary, was that with their enormous output, they tended to have more flops than hits. But not much information is provided as to just which films were hits and which were not. Breakin’ was definitely a moneymaker (perhaps the biggest in the company’s history), but what about Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, for which this film was named, and which earned a “thumbs up” from Roger Ebert?
Eventually it is clear that 1987 yielded three costly flops, Masters of the Universe, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie Over the Top, all of which signaled the beginning of the end. But as most of the interviewees remark, what Golan and Globus “didn’t have in taste, they made up for in enthusiasm.” Hartley indicates that there’s no shame in what they tried to do or how they tried to do it. Many of the participants adopt an exaggerated Israeli accent to tell their Menahem Golan stories, and they are so bizarre they must be true. One of the stories recounts that Sharon Stone was accidentally cast in King Solomon’s Mines, because Golan had requested “that Stone girl,” referring not to Sharon, but to Kathleen Turner of Romancing the Stone.
Perhaps preferring shock and laughter, Electric Boogaloo spends a little less time on Golan and Globus’s finer achievements, and there are quite a few, like John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi, Fred Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark (1988), Konchalovsky’s Shy People (1988), etc. One film, The Assault (1986), won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Franco Zeffirelli is interviewed about his Otello (1986) with Golan and Globus, and says it was the best picture he ever made.
Cannon also handled a Jean-Luc Godard movie, King Lear (1985), which is no Breathless, but has its admirers. Yet the documentary laughs it off, with star Molly Ringwald describing how weird and difficult it was to work with the legendary director. Horror legend Tobe Hooper is also here, sadly recapping and writing off his Cannon trilogy, Lifeforce, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Invaders from Mars, although, in hindsight, those movies tend to hold up rather well.
It should be noted that Electric Boogaloo is one of two new documentaries on Golan and Globus. Hilla Medalia’s The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, which recently played the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, is the official version, signed off by Golan (who died in August of 2014) and Globus in person. That version is said to be more polite than this one, and this one probably spends too much time being irreverent. (Electric Boogaloo acknowledges the existence of The Go-Go Boys and cheerfully compares it to the race between Breakin’ and Orion’s Beat Street to be the first breakdancing movie in theaters.)
Clip shows are always fun for die-hard movie buffs (including critics), especially in a case like this, when the clips are much more potent than the completed films. Images of ninja kicks, blood spatters, and cavorting women can make you feel giddy, at least in the moment. As for the rest of it, it would have been nice for a little more insight into Golan and Globus as humans, rather than as subjects of amusing stories. But even if the impressive selection of interviewees can never really get to the hearts of their former bosses, they at least show something in common. They all love movies, and they once cared (and perhaps still care) about what went into these poor, ragged, laughable, but lovable films.Jeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies professionally since 1997. He writes regularly for the San Francisco Examiner and Common Sense Media. His work as a freelance film critic has appeared in The Oakland Tribune, The Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Las Vegas Weekly, FlickNation.net, MacWorld’s online blog TechHive.com, Cinematical.com, Movies.com, Greencine.com, and BayInsider.com. In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, CombustibleCelluloid.com. He holds a master’s degree in cinema, is the co-creator of a movie-matching site and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is also a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He even worked in a video store.