DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films



Sometimes, the best documentaries aren't about stirring victories, historic successes, or heroic people.  Sometimes, the best documentaries are about losers, accidental stardom, hubris, and horrible people.  We are equally fascinated by a trainwreck as much as we are a space shuttle launch, maybe even more so.  The captivation and interest factor doesn't wain.  That's the draw of the new documentary "Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films."  It makes a trainwreck fascinating.  The rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Cannon Films is stirring, historic, and heroic on one hand.  The kicker is what the film company did that was stirring, historic, and heroic made it more about the losing accident of hubris conducted by horrible people. 

"Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films" premieres for one night only tonight at Landmark Theatre locations nationwide.  The documentary is directed by Mark Hatley ("Not Quite Hollywood") and back by filmmaker Brett Ratner's Ratpac Productions.  The Los Angeles screening tonight will feature an in-person Q&A moderated by Ratner featuring director Mark Hartley, Roger Corman, and former Cannon Film star staples Lucinda Dickey, Michael Dudikoff and Mark Helfrich.  Locally here in Chicago, the documentary screens at 7:00pm tonight at the Landmark Century Cinema at 2828 North Clark.  Check their website for more information.

Even if you have never heard of Cannon Films, you have certainly heard of their movies.  "Death Wish II," "Runaway Train," "The Delta Force," "Breakin'," "American Ninja," "Masters of the Universe," "Bolero," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," "Over the Top," "Superman IV: A Quest for Peace," "Bloodsport," and "Kickboxer" are just a dozen of hundreds of their films made in the 1980s.  Taken over by a pair of Israeli cousins, filmmaker Menahem Golan and businessman Yoram Globus, in 1979, Cannon Films churned out B-movie after B-movie and distributed them domestically and internationally to whoever they could sell them to.  They banked that if just one out of every five or ten films were a financial success, the windfall could enable the whole movie factory to keep chugging.

Golan and Globus tapped into a ravenous market for cheap films at the right time during wider theatrical growth of multiplexes and the advent of the home video market.  Keeping budgets down and margins low, Cannon Films made a killing.  They marketed films with names and posters before cameras ever rolled.  It didn't matter that the majority of the industry and press deemed their completed works trashy and offensive.  They threw money at whatever they wanted and, for a time, it worked in spades.  Cannon lured name-brand stars and filmmakers like Chuck Norris, John Cassavettes, Charles Bronson, Franco Zeffirelli, and Sylvester Stallone to lesser projects and created brand new cult stars that we still remember today like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Dudikoff.

The documentary takes us back to Cannon's haughty beginnings with their skin flicks and slasher films that later elevated to the cheesy action blockbusters we remember.  The film also pulls back the curtain on their Menahem and Yoram's shady business practices, lowball treatment of people, and tyrannical micromanagement of every moving part of Cannon.  Excellent interviews with over 30 former filmmakers, actors, and actresses are collected together to weave Cannon's epic rise and flameout within the decade of the 1980s.

There is a palpable nostalgic fun in "Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films."  It's fun to look back and remember their fun and awful films.  The revelatory interviews and testimonies only add to the wonderment of how it all came to be and survived this long.  We remember and embrace the schlock disasters with fondness, especially those that triumphantly stood up to never admit to being failures.  The oodles of archival film clips alone, in all their sexually and violently explicit glory, is worth the 107 minutes along. 

More so, there is a feeling of victory in seeing Golan and Globus execute their own warped version of the American dream directly in the traditional face of the Hollywood industry and system.  The fact that we are still talking about these otherwise forgettable films today shows that Cannon was successful and making its mark in cinematic history.  The documentary seeks to remind us of that and never forgets to laugh at the ludicrous truth that permeated everything Cannon touched.   

LESSON #1: THE PLACE OF THE B-MOVIE IN THE ARTISTIC MEDIUM OF CINEMA-- Cannon Films proved better than anyone else in Hollywood history that there is a market for lesser quality films.  They cornered it and offered endless entertainment.  There is more than a niche out there for every taste and quirk from sex films and bad horror flicks to martial arts spectacles and noisy action films.  Just like in the food world, McDonald's outsells fancy four-star restaurants and always will.  The same goes for B-films.  We like trash sometimes and they're not going away.  The fact that we are still talking about the bad Cannon Films of 30 years ago shows that they mattered, even as jokes and failures.  In fact, when you look at the comic book films of Marvel or the gaudy action and disaster films like "Independence Day" from Roland Emmerich and his peers, the B-movie is more prevalent and fancy than ever before.

LESSON #2: FINDING SUCCESS OPERATING OUTSIDE OF THE NORMAL RULES-- Cannon worked outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system.  They cut different deals, worked on a different schedules, and bought their way out of red tape and failure with money and salesmanship.  They were the little fish making noise in a big pond.  In a way, the Weinstein brothers that followed them to created the parade of Oscar winners at Miramax took a page from the business model of Cannon, only they exchanged spectacle for quality.  Cannon's content, marketing, and sales changed the game and made its mark.

LESSON #3: HUBRIS WILL ONLY GET YOU SO FAR-- Hubris is inflexible and eventually turns into stubbornness.  The character trait can be genius and yet still rub people the wrong way constantly and turn people off.  Golan and Globus were two immigrants who wanted to make their kind of movies their way and succeeded through total stubborn hubris.  They never changed, wavered, or stopped pushing, even if times and tastes changed or the money ran out.  The downfall of Cannon Films is a cautionary business tale where vision has to be more collaborative than controlling, even if it can eek out success.