Directed by: Steve Mitchell
Premise: A biographical documentary about independent filmmaker Larry Cohen.
What Works: Larry Cohen was not a filmmaker who the average moviegoer will have heard of nor did he win awards or achieve the prestige of major studio directors. But Cohen left behind a unique filmography that had a distinct style, impressive production values, and occasionally off-the-wall ideas. King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen surveys his career and makes the case for Cohen as an auteur. It does that through a look at the highlights of his career and interviews with some of Cohen’s collaborators, admirers, and contemporaries including Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Fred Williamson, David J. Schow, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, and Martin Scorsese. The film is organized chronologically, starting with Cohen’s roots in television where he created shows like Branded and The Invaders. These programs were innovative but Cohen struggled with the constrictions of network television at that time. Cohen moved into feature filmmaking with 1972’s Bone. Unlike many of the filmmaker’s later titles, Bone was not exploitation or a genre story but it does display Cohen’s intelligence, willingness to push boundaries, and his feel for character. Cohen wrote and directed Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem which were important titles in the blaxploitation genre. This section of the documentary addresses Cohen’s guerilla production style which gave these films energy and production value beyond the means of his budget. It’s Alive was Cohen’s first foray into horror and like many of his films, It’s Alive was intelligent and the horror was rooted in provocative ideas and primal fears. Those qualities were found in Cohen’s later works such as God Told Me To which is a really interesting sci-fi picture and 1985’s The Stuff, a sci-fi and horror mashup that satirized fast food and consumerism and in many respects was ahead of its time. He also reworked familiar genres in films like The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover which was an edgy take on the cops and robbers story. Later in his career, Cohen stepped away from directing but continued to write pictures such as 2002’s Phone Booth. King Cohen effectively surveys these films and gives a sense of who Cohen was as a person and as a filmmaker and it is a tribute to his body of work.
What Doesn’t: King Cohen is a mostly reverential piece of biographical filmmaking. The documentary surveys Larry Cohen’s career through testimonial interviews accompanied by archival footage. It’s serviceable but Larry Cohen’s career was defined by his singularity and audacity. By comparison, this documentary is a routine biography and coverage of Cohen’s less successful films is always framed as someone else’s fault. In its efforts to make the case for this filmmaker’s significance to American cinema, King Cohen overstates the importance of Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem to the blaxploitation era; those films are important to that period but Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft got there first.
DVD extras: Interview outtakes, featurettes, a trailer, and the soundtrack CD.
Bottom Line: King Cohen is an enjoyable survey of Larry Cohen’s filmography. For viewers who aren’t familiar with his movies, King Cohen is a suitable introduction and for Cohen’s fans it provides some insight into his body of work.
Episode: #743 (March 31, 2019)