Sunday, 13 March 2016

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Although Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is often little more than talking heads interspersed with clips, the jaw dropping stories, both on and off the screen, coupled with the contrasting, larger than life characters of maverick studio heads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, makes for riveting viewing.

Golan's early life was spent learning the ropes in the Israeli film industry, before teaming up with his business minded cousin Globus and moving to Hollywood. There, they proceeded to do what many film producers before them have done, taking the latest movie trends or news stories (Operation Thunderbolt was based on the Entebbe hostage crisis) and churning out cheap and cheerful product that people wanted to see. By 1979, they were in a position to snap up Cannon Films, and spent the next decade filling cinemas and video stores with a mix of quickly made, quickly shot action flicks, (often starring the likes of Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris), thinly plotted cash-ins on the pop culture phenomenon de jour (such as the mega hit breakdancing flick Breakin' and it's sequel Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, which gave this documentary it's title), and, surprisingly, occasional forays into the arthouse. All these were helped by an efficient marketing machine, churning out lurid artwork and film titles. 


They also had strong links to the horror genre, having started with slashers such as Hospital Massacre and New Years Evil, before teaming up with Tobe Hooper for the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the vampire/zombie/apocalypse/nudie oddity Lifeforce

Without the participation of Golan and Globus themselves, the film relies on those who worked alongside them in front of and behind the camera. Some of the anecdotes border on farcical, my favourite being Golan's demand that he get "that Stone woman" for the 1985 Indiana Jones knock-off King Solomon's Mines. Sharon Stone was duly cast, the film was shot – only for Golan to be horrified at his leading lady – he meant Kathleen Turner from Romancing the Stone.

Three things soon become apparent; firstly, the speed that many of the films were produced at, coupled with Golan's inability to stop coming with ideas, regardless of relevance to plot or character, meant that a lot of them were not always as good as they could have been. Screenwriters who had crafted tightly plotted stories found their screenplays jettisoned in favour of random action spectacle at the editing stage. Still, without that willingness to try anything we would have been denied Ninja 3: The Domination, which manages to cash in on Cannon's existing success with Ninja films, as well as ripping off Flashdance, and putting in a possession storyline straight out of The Exorcist.

Secondly, it didn't matter one jot about the quality, audiences lapped them up. This coupled with Globus keeping a tight rein on the purse strings, and the tried and tested business model of pre-selling films that had not been written yet, meant the money flowed in at an astonishing rate.

Thirdly, this success clearly offended some people in the Hollywood of the mid 80s, who regarded the crude noisy studio as lowering the high tone set by the likes of Top Gun and the Police Academy franchise.

The documentary also sheds light on the Cannon studios indulgence of some of the top arthouse directors in cinema, bankrolling films by the likes of John Cassavettes, Barbet Schroeder, Franco Zeffirelli and Jean-Luc Godard. Unlike their more commercial product, with the highbrow material, Golan and Globus seemed happy to let the artists get on with it undisturbed. The results were as mixed as their less intellectual efforts. Cassavettes' Love Streams, Schroeder's Barfly and Zeffirelli's Othello all garnered critical acclaim, but Godard's take on King Lear is a tedious baffling mess.

Inevitably, our heroes fly too close to the sun, and stray from their careful business model. Overreaching themselves, they tried to move into comic book and toy franchises, snapping up Superman, and Masters of the Universe. Both had millions spent on them before having budgets slashed (leading to Milton Keynes doubling for Metropolis) and both tanked at the box office. The final straw was the aborted attempt to make a low budget Spiderman, to be directed by Tobe Hooper, an attempt that never got in front of the cameras, and by 1988 they were bankrupt, and the movie world was a duller place.

This is not the first time Electric Boogaloo director Mark Hartley has explored a specific strand of weird and wonderful cinema, having previously made Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed, which covered the exploitation films of Australia and The Philippines respectively. Here he manages to sort the crazy tale into a coherent and fast moving narrative, resisting the temptation to show off visually, letting the stories and clips tell their own incredible story.

It's easy to sneer at Cannon Films and their output, but to me they simply follow in the tradition of the likes of Roger Corman, giving people what they want (and letting people behind the camera get a foothold in the movie industry). This torch has been passed nowadays to the likes of the Asylum Studio, but although the business model may be the same, their end product usually feels too self knowingly ironic and sanitised for my taste, lacking the unhinged insanity of a Cannon classic.