For the second time in a year, the meteoric rise and ignominious demise of 1980s schlock juggernaut Cannon Films comes to the screen in feature-length documentary form. But where Cannon is concerned, a twice-told tale is no vexation for the weary cinephile’s ear. Faster, sleeker and more out-of-control (in a good way) than its Cannes-premiered predecessor (Israeli director Hila Medalia’s “The Go-Go Boys”), Mark Hartley’s “Electric Boogaloo” ambles anecdotally through the legend of the late Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus with generous archival footage, film clips and an assemblage of more than 80 talking heads — actors, writers, directors, editors and studio execs who, if anything, seem emboldened by the lack of Golan and Globus’ official participation in the project. Sure to be a fest favorite, Hartley’s docu should also spur much Cannon revivalism on the repertory and cinematheque circuits.
Cannon is irresistible fodder for Hartley, whose previous cinephile docus “Not Quite Hollywood” (2008) and “Machete Maidens Unleashed!” (2010) showed he was drawn to exploitation movies like Charles Bronson to a pack of street thugs. Like those films, “Electric Boogaloo” doesn’t tell its story from A to Z, but rather in a digressive, choral fashion that privileges outrageous personal anecdotes over dry historical chronologies. It also assumes a baseline of audience familiarity with the Cannon brand going in (or, really, why else would you be here?), though unlike Medalia, Hartley actually takes time out to explain the company’s decade-long, pre-Golan-and-Globus existence under founders Dennis Friedland and Christopher Dewey, who scored a couple of surprise box office hits (including the anti-hippie vigilante pic “Joe,” directed by a pre-“Rocky” John G. Avildsen) before selling their interests in 1979.
Having established themselves as a producing (and, in Golan’s case, directing) force in their native Israel, Golan and Globus took over the fledgling company and, after initially continuing in Friedland and Dewey’s drive-in/grindhouse model, began to spread their paper wings. What followed was a classical assimilation drama — “The Jazz Singer” with breakdancing and nunchucks instead of singing — as Golan and Globus tried their darndest to beat Hollywood at its own game, but could never quite shake their image as carpetbagging interlopers. Hartley’s film argues that some (but not all) of that reputation was warranted. Indeed, for every canny Cannon hit like “Missing in Action” (1984) or “Breakin’” (1984), there were two or three (dozen) others that flew stealthily under the box office radar, leading to the early termination of a distribution pact with MGM (whose then chief, Frank Yablans, is among the least nostalgic or amused of Hartley’s on-camera subjects).
Whereas “The Go-Go Boys” (reportedly commissioned by Golan and Globus as a pre-emptive strike against Hartley’s film) offered more of a broad overview — “Cannon for Beginners,” if you will — “Electric Boogaloo” delves into the nitty gritty, including a film-by-film case study of Cannon’s highs (including the Oscar-nominated “Runaway Train” and John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams”) and lows, rife with war stories from those who bore witness. Catherine Mary Stuart, star of the Golan-directed futuristic rock musical “The Apple” (1980) appears to recount he film’s disastrous premiere at the Montreal Film Festival, while Richard Chamberlain pops in to recount tensions with his “King Solomon’s Mines” co-star Sharon Stone (allegedly cast when Golan requested “that Stone woman,” though what he really meant was “Romancing the Stone” star Kathleen Turner). In a candid moment, breakout “Breakin’” stars Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quinones and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers lament how the cash-grab sequel, “Electric Boogaloo” (the source of Hartley’s title), stripped away the first movie’s already minimal street-level grit in an ill-fated bid at old-fashioned musical grandeur.
Elsewhere, Hartley touches on Cannon’s longstanding associations with Bronson and Chuck Norris (their version of 1930s contract players), eventually joined by an up-and-coming kickboxing champ named Jean-Claude Van Damme; the studio’s unsuccessful attempts to make a respectable director of unrepentant vulgarian Michael Winner (“Death Wish”); and the laughably high-toned erotic romps made with sex kittens Sybil Danning, Sylvia Kristel and Bo Derek (still leggy and lissome at 57 as she recalls the making of 1984’s notorious “Bolero”). What (almost) everyone agrees on is that, while Golan and Globus had questionable taste and even more questionable business ethics, Golan in particular loved movies with a feverish passion — a claim backed up by wonderful period footage of the mogul in throes of ecstasy at the editing table, jubilantly selling his wares on the Croisette, and optimistically tub-thumping the company’s future even when the hard evidence (chiefly, a release slate ballooning in inverse proportion to box-office returns) suggested otherwise.
Hartley can’t get to everything in the course of a zippy 106 minutes, and one hankers for a DVD bonus feature devoted to Cannon’s catastrophic series of live-action musical fairy tales, launched in 1987 with the unpleasant “Rumpelstiltskin” and quickly relegated to video-bin obscurity. But along the way, “Electric Boogaloo” does take time to place Cannon in the broader context of an ever-evolving Hollywood. It marvels that the company once owned the rights to “Superman,” “Spider-Man” and “Captain America,” at a time when comic-book movies were anything but the vogue. And it rightly postulates Carolco, Miramax and (especially) Avi Lerner’s Millennium Films (a company staffed extensively with ex-Cannon staffers) as those who followed, albeit more wisely, in Golan and Globus’ footsteps: making movies you can pre-sell at Cannes with little more than a title, a poster, and a dream.
Both Hartley and Medalia’s films owe a large, uncredited debt to British journalist Andrew Yule’s 1987 book “Hollywood a Go-Go,” which captured Golan and Globus for good and ill at the height of their Hollywood powers, but with the ominous writing very much on the wall.