The 1980s were arguably the worst decade in American film history. So if I tell you that there are not one but two new documentaries about Cannon Films, the schlocky ’80s film production company led by Israeli cousins Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, you probably will shake your head and ask why. I would have thought even one film about those two characters would have been excessive, but after seeing “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” a new film by Australian film maven Mark Hartley, I have to admit that it was worth a couple hours of my time.
“Electric Boogaloo,” which is the opening night film of the annual Film Comment Selects series that kicks off on Friday, Feb. 20, is a very, very funny kaleidoscopic history of the studio that gave us “Death Wish 2, 3, 4, and 5,” an avalanche of Chuck Norris epics and such profoundly outré efforts as “The Last American Virgin.” Early in the film, one of their old retainers describes Menachem Golan as “the father of Israeli cinema.” On some level that statement is true, but it explains why it took so many generations for the offspring to live down its paternity. Hartley repeatedly shows us footage of Golan swearing his undying love for movies and moviemaking, but even his most loyal friends admit that Menachem had more enthusiasm than talent.
Or, to be fair, no talent for filmmaking. Paired with his closer-than-a-brother first cousin Yoram — they were known around Hollywood as the Go-Go Boys — Menachem displayed a talent for deal-making and sales. When it comes to making financially successful films, those skills are more helpful than artistic genius. The pair muddled along in Israel, but they wanted to make it in L.A. where the real stars were. When a small U.S. film company became available for next-to-nothing, they jumped at the opportunity to realize their American dream. Which is how Cannon Film Group became the fastest rags-to-riches-to-total disaster story in Hollywood.
As long as they followed certain basic rules of B moviemaking, Golan and Globus were safe. If you keep your budgets low — no star names, no costly special effects or expensive literary properties — and your product reliably unambitious, you can make and sell low-budget movies and even earn a few bucks. Cannon embroidered the formula successfully by developing a real facility for preselling projects, convincing distributors and exhibitors to pay upfront for a film to be delivered at an agreed-upon date in the near future. This meant that they weren’t hurting for capital but, as the frenzy to expand took hold, it turned them into the cinematic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, with every project in hock to the ones to follow. And when they added real estate holdings and pretentions to art…
One of the strengths of “Electric Boogaloo” is that it makes the labyrinthine workings of the industry that invented the term “creative accounting” seem relatively straightforward (well, at least as straightforward and sharply pointed as your average corkscrew). But the real focus for Hartley is the sheer and hilarious crassness of Cannon’s product. At a time when Roger Corman was distributing Bergman and Fellini (while producing exploitation films directed by young directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante), Cannon was making films like “Sahara,” secure in the belief that Brooke Shields would win the Best Actress Oscar, and “The Apple,” a personal project of Golan’s that one interviewee calls “the Mount Everest of bad musicals.” They would eventually cut deals with Jean-Luc Godard and other art-film luminaries and that didn’t work out too well either.
Cannon had a distribution agreement with MGM, then headed by Frank Yablans; it lasted slightly less than a year because Yablans quickly realized that not only was the production company’s product rubbish, it was money-losing rubbish. Yablans is the most outspokenly negative of the voices in the film, as might be expected, since the Cannon fiasco probably greased the rails of his departure at Metro.
Surprisingly, almost everyone else interviewed for the film, from actors to production people to Cannon executives, speaks of Golan and Globus with real affection. The story ends badly, with the company many millions of dollars in debt and the two cousins not on speaking terms, and by that point it is impossible not to feel a little sad for the pair. They reached a point at which each released a film about “the forbidden dance, the lambada” on the exact same day; the enmity had become that powerful.
Which brings us back to the opening question — why two films about Cannon? Because Golan and Globus, who made up with one another not long before Menachem’s death last year, didn’t want to let strangers have the last word. As a title card at the end of “Electric Boogaloo” explains, they made their own film, “The Go-Go Boys” and sped it to completion three months before Hartley’s effort. It is, in a typically Cannonesque way, the perfect happy ending.
“Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” written and directed by Mark Hartley, will open this year’s Film Comment Selects series, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, on Friday, Feb. 20 at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). The series will also screen three fairly typical examples of Cannon product: “10 to Midnight,” starring Charles Bronson, “The Last American Virgin” and “Ninja III: The Domination.” For information, call (212) 875-5601 or go to www.filminc.com.