Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
In 1984, independent production house Cannon Film Group released Breakin’ (1984), a ramshackle buddy comedy which identified and helped define the breakdancing movement just as it was first beginning to cross over into popular culture. The acting was terrible, the dialogue misjudged, the plot formulaic and the direction rough-and-ready, but the film also captured the zeitgeist, and featured transcendent improvised dancing from its two then unknown leads Adolfo ‘Shabba-Doo’ Quinones and Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers. It would become one of Cannon’s biggest hits – and then the production company, hoping to cash in on its own success, came out a mere half a year later with quickie sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. The result is a sometimes hilarious abomination: a full-on musical in day-glo colours that abandons the veneer of youthful authenticity which lent the first film its appeal, and is about as ‘street’ as might be expected of an idea dreamt up on the fly by two white middle-aged producers, the Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. “Breakin’ 2 was more of a cartoon,” laments Quinones, “I cried about it: we had lost sight of the audience.”
It therefore makes sense that this of all films should be commemorated in the title of Mark Hartley‘s latest documentary on yet another chapter in his continuing history of exploitation cinema. The previous Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) firmly established Hartley’s winning formula of in-your-face clips, anecdotal soundbites and unbridled, infectious enthusiasm for the material – but just as that approach risked becoming an overfamiliar schtick, he has dropped both the titular exclamation mark and the unreserved adoration of the films that he is putting in the spotlight. In their 80s heyday, Cannon may have produced some box office hits, may have attracted some big-name directors and actors, may even have had moments of striking originality, but Golan and Globus’s grand ambition to be accepted by the Hollywood mainstream and to produce high art or at least Academy recognition was constantly offset by their poor judgements, their even poorer taste, and their inability to stop flogging a dead horse – all of which is emblematised by the delirious debacle that was Electric Boogaloo.
So while Hartley commands a typically impressive array of talking heads here, the voices are far more critical than in his previous outings. Richard Kraft, a regular musical supervisor for Cannon, emphasises the way Golan “assembles, like Frankenstein, parts from other movies and creates a disaster.” When Bo Derek, utterly exploited in Cannon’s sex romp Bolero (1984), refers to the cousins as ‘outlaws’ – a label that many an independent producer covets – she emphasises that what she means is that they “had no scruples.” Meanwhile Alex Winter does not hesitate to call Death Wish 3 (1985), in which he had a role, “a total dogpile piece of shit.” Still there are, besides some truly mesmerising failures in the Cannon canon, also the occasional real successes, and any cinephile should listen carefully when the likes of John Frankenheimer and Franco Zeffirelli line up to sing the praises of Golan and Globus (“the best producers I ever worked with,” said Zeffirelli of his time with them on 1986’s operatic Otello).
The truth is, though, that what these two ripoff merchants produced was far more often miss than hit, as they cluelessly rebooted and remastered materials without ever understanding them or the American audience, and kept punching way above their weight (an impulse that drove Cannon to its ruin in 1989). Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is at its most interesting not as a whistle-stop tour of Cannon’s mostly lowest-common-denominator output, but rather as an examination of an industry in flux whose current marketing and methodology (pre-sales financing, high output low overheads, overinflated paycheques for big-star names, etc.) Cannon itself helped create, for better or for worse.