Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were famous (or infamous) for many things, but a stringent approach to quality filmmaking was hardly one of them. At the height of their success in the 1980s, the Israeli cousins, and their company Cannon Films, were synonymous with cheap B-movies of just about every kind: Chuck Norris action flicks, sex comedies, ninja martial arts epics, dance movies and tawdry slasher horrors.
Their films frequently horrified critics, but became a staple of video rental stores: with Cannon Films cranking out as many as 50 or so pictures a year at its peak, the company’s distinctive logo and self-explanatory film titles (New Year’s Evil, Avenging Force, Enter The Ninja) were ubiquitous throughout the 80s and early 90s. The company was eventually brought down by its fast-and-loose approach to film production, and Cannon released its final film in 1993. But the studio left behind a colossal back catalogue of movies, and, as the feature-length documentary Electric Boogaloo proves, an awful lot of extraordinary anecdotes.
Director Mark Hartley’s love of B-movies previously fuelled the feature-length documentaries Not Quite Hollywood (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010), and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films offers a similarly affectionate portrait. It charts Golan and Globus’ journey from Israel – where the pair scored an early critical and financial hit with 1977’s Operation Thunderbolt – to their adventures in America, which began with the purchase of an ailing production company called Cannon Films in 1979. That acquisition happened to tie in to the boom years of the VHS tape, and Cannon Films was perfectly placed to cater to a growing B-movie market.
In Electric Boogaloo, a variety of actors, producers, directors, screenwriters and technicians talk about their memories of working with Golan and Globus, resulting in a colorful, frequently hilarious oral history of two highly unorthodox producers. While Globus was the quieter of the two, diligently raising finances and securing deals in the shadows, Golan was the bullish, fiercely energetic figurehead, frequently making up movie ideas on the spot or cheerfully recycling old ones.
“That’s the Cannon way,” music supervisor Richard Kraft says of the pair’s approach to filmmaking. “It resembles something you’ve seen, minus the good taste.”
That lack of taste can be found in the movie clips that flash up in between anecdotes: the assorted beatings, blood-lettings and bad prosthetic effects in Enter The Ninja, the acres of flesh on display in Cannon’s one-of-a-kind adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (made to cash in on the post-Emmanuelle success of Sylvia Kristel), and Golan’s utterly bizarre musical The Apple, which he thought would be a hit on a par with Tommy, but instead resulted in preview audiences throwing their complimentary soundtrack LPs at the cinema screen.
Electric Boogaloo moves at a break-neck pace through these clips and personal stories, aptly mimicking the studio’s own fast-and-loose approach to making movies. Not everyone has fond memories of their experiences on Cannon’s output – Alex Winter’s recollections of working with Michael Winner on Death Wish 3 are less than rose-tinted – while others appear to look back on the period with disbelief. Frank Yablans, who was the head of MGM in the early 1980s, still doesn’t seem to have recovered from the string of iffy films that resulted from the brief distribution deal Cannon had with his studio at the time.
Just about everyone can agree on one thing, though: that Menahem Golan carried with him a real passion for cinema, if not the discipline or attention span to ensure the quality of what resulted. Not that everything Cannon produced was pure schlock: as one interviewee notes, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train was a superb thriller, while no less a filmmaker than Franco Zeffirelli maintains that Otello, produced by Golan and Globus, was the best movie he ever made. But the sheer number of projects the company had on the go at any one time meant that its output was wildly uneven, to say the least – according to one anecdote, Golan would often get one movie muddled up with another, or forget that he’d greenlit a film entirely.
One story goes that, when it came to casting the female co-star for King Solomon’s Mines (a film rushed into production to capitalise on the success of Indiana Jones), Golan blithely said, “Hire that Stone girl.” It was assumed that Golan was referring to Sharon Stone, a little-known actress who’d previously appeared in things like Irreconcilable Differences and Magnum P.I. The actress Golan was actually referring to was Kathleen Turner, the co-star of Romancing The Stone. Too late: Sharon Stone was cast and the film was hurriedly shot. It was only when a rough cut was screened for the producers that Golan turned around and said words to the effect of, “Who the hell is she?”
It’s but one of dozens of delicious, almost too-good-to-be-true stories in Electric Boogaloo. Others range from tales of questionable yet quite clever business tactics, pre-selling movies on the strength of little more than a poster or a title to overseas investors, the rivalry between Cannon’s Breakin’ and Orion Pictures’ Beat Street to become the first hip-hop culture movie, and the rush to release a sequel with one of the most infamous titles in history: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Molly Ringwald, Richard Chamberlain and Dolph Lundgren are among the starry contributors, but the best anecdotes come from the various film directors and technicians who had to deal with Cannon’s chaotic methods on an almost daily basis. The story about an attempt to make a family movie about a chimpanzee – what would eventually become 1987’s Going Bananas – is absolutely priceless.
Ultimately, 1987 would mark the beginning of the end for Cannon Films, as its desire to break into blockbuster territory with (relatively) expensive movies like Superman IV and Masters Of The Universe coincided with its impending bankruptcy. But even as those films failed to draw in the business Cannon so desperately needed, its place in moviemaking history was already assured. No other company was making films quite like them at the time, and some of their tactics – like courting overseas markets – would be adopted by other studios before too long.
Most of all, though, Cannon left behind a collection of films that were, for better or worse, unique. Electric Boogaloo captures the opportunism, tackiness and sheer energy of the studio’s 80s output, and the result is a relentlessly absorbing, lovingly crafted document from the era that taste forgot.
Electric Boogaloo will be screening at the London Film Festival on the 9th and 11th of October.