Schlock films tend to have a certain sort of free-associative, on-the-fly intensity, even if they’re ultimately unwatchable. Their indifference to standard measures of quality can sometimes scan as weirdly honorable, as the films are beholden openly to the hunger for profit, rather than to conventional taste-making or high-art posturing. Most of the movies released by Cannon Films in their 1980s heyday are dreadful, but they’ve earned considerable affection. There are probably many Gen-X nerds who can recall the Cannon logo appearing in front of a film they watched several times as a kid over pizza and a half-dozen sodas, such as The Delta Force, Masters of the Universe, Breakin’, American Ninja, and Cyborg. These movies rip off so many things so desperately and interchangeably that they resemble an act of one-stop-shop channel surfing, which is ideal for an unformed cinephile determined to spend a Saturday in front of the TV.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (which takes its title from the infamous sequel to Breakin’) cannily approximates that channel-surfing quality with its propulsive alternation of clips and interviews. To watch this documentary is to somehow mainline 300 Cannon movies in 107 minutes, and anyone inclined to watch this film at all will somehow find that statement intangibly comforting. Director Mark Hartley, who also made the similarly infectious Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, displays a quality that can’t be faked: authentic enthusiasm for disreputable material. Hartley clearly responds to the chutzpah of the Cannon godfathers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli cousins who translated their business acumen and raw love of movies into a blossoming independent film empire that might’ve become the next Miramax before such a comparison existed. But Golan and Gobus were burned by the usual cautionary issue of growing too big, too fast, which ultimately blinded them to their indulgences and to the effects of their, at best, quasi-legal business practices.
Hartley’s open, if vague, about the fact that Golan and Globus were hustlers. The interviewees, an impressively vast roster, are surprisingly blunt about the cousins’ invasive exploitation. Bo Derek recalls stills from Bolero that were stolen out of her purse, only to see them subsequently run in the trades promoting the film. Frank Yablans, former CEO of MGM, is amusingly blunt about the un-releasable “shit” that Cannon delivered his studio as part of a distribution agreement. Michael Dudikoff nurtures mixed feelings about a company that nearly launched his career before tarnishing it with one sub-mediocrity after another. Elliot Gould and Robert Forster, easily the best actors interviewed here, look back upon their Cannon experiences with a qualified respect that Hartley clearly shares. Yeah, the movies suck, and the working conditions were dangerous and abusive, but these cats got things done, and, hell, a couple of good, or at least interesting, films did slip through their release schedule, including Lifeforce, Barfly, and King Lear.
Electric Boogalo does allow certain potentially pertinent issues to elude it. In passing, someone says that studios now make Cannon films with a straight face and a bigger budget, while another allows that their international “pre-branding” model was way ahead of the Hollywood curve. These are fascinating, resonant observations that should’ve been discussed at greater length, and the issue of Golan and Globus’s cultural differences from most of white American Hollywood could bear greater analysis as well. Hartley’s film is tougher than most tribute docs though, and it has a terrific, ironic ending that perfectly captures the relentless shyster drive of its subjects. It’s revealed that Golan and Globus declined offers to speak to Hartley because they instead initiated their own doc (The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films), and they even managed to get their film into theaters first.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.