Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Electric Boogaloo
"A breezy, captivating and balanced tale of a studio whose rise and fall is perhaps the only story actually more bizarre than the plots of the films that came out of it."

Director Mark Hartley has form when it comes to relating the histories of lesser-known and more leftfield corners of film history; he is the filmmaker behind Not Quite Hollywood, which explored the Ozploitation strand of Australian filmmaking. He is thus well-equipped to tell the story of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli-born film production moguls who, in the 1980s, shoved their way into major Hollywood film production via their low budget exploitation-slanted studio Cannon Films and a string of bizarre and quality-control free films including Death Wish 3 and Masters Of The Universe, which offered "choice" roles to the likes of Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Regarded then and now as a joke by many refined filmmakers and critics, though with great affection by lovers of below-C-grade midnight movie fare, Hartley’s film about Cannon’s prolific and mind-boggingly eclectic output could easily have simply stacked up a bunch of clips from their more notorious productions and let an audience laugh itself silly. But Hartley takes the subject matter quite seriously, and instead of being fawning or lacerating he assembles an impressive set of interviewees, clips and news footage to tell a breezy, captivating and balanced tale of a studio whose rise and fall is perhaps the only story actually more bizarre than the plots of the films that came out of it. Not that there isn't plenty to laugh about, though for the uninitiated, jaws dropping to the ground might a more appropriate reaction. This is the studio after all that, with American Ninja III, managed to fuse an Exorcist-type possession movie, a martial arts epic and Flashdance all in one. As one interview subject puts it, Cannon films "always resembled something, minus the good taste".

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Hartley’s film actually begins before the Cannon era - showing how Golan and Globus helped to create the modern Israeli film industry with titles such as Operation Thunderbolt and Lemon Popsicle (later remade as The Last American Virgin, and actually highly successful in Israel at the time of its release in 1978). Here they learned the art of churning their films out lean and mean. During the Eighties, they pursued their dream of making big American pictures, and purchasing The Cannon Group was their way in. Despite Cannon quickly becoming a conveyor belt of critically mauled titles such as the exceedingly bizarre The Apple (Golan’s ludicrous attempt to equal Ken Russell’s Tommy) that made them the bane of critics and created a whiff of trashiness about the brand that never faded, a distribution deal with MGM and aggressive salesmanship actually kept them in the game until a few genuine zeitgeist-aware hits emerged, such as the BB/hip-hop themed Breakin’. Breakin’, like virtually all other Cannon films, was rushed into production, in this case to beat a competitor’s release date.

Through the interviews and news footage, what emerges is a tragic-comic tale of two film obsessives who might have suffered under the shadow of snobbery that Hollywood held over them, but who did themselves no favours by putting political correctness way down on the ladder of priorities (along with a willingness to take advice), and whose egos ultimately ended up writing cheques for bigger and bigger projects that neither body could cash. Female actors such as Bo Derek, who worked with Cannon, have few kind words on camera for a filmmaking ethos that seemed to be summed up as “everything is better with more tits".

Few interviewees have any praise for their full-speed-ahead production ethos either, which often involved ruthlessly selling films with little more than a poster and the promise of a three-way genre mashup. Director Gary Nelson recalls in one interview segment that with so many films racing into production at once, the duo even seemed to forget what film they were watching at times: resulting in a test screening of his King Solomon’s Mines sequel Allan Quartermain And The Lost City Of Gold where Golan and Globus seemed to be under the impression they were watching Tobe Hooper’s Invaders From Mars instead, leading to utter confusion.

Working on a Cannon production at any stage seems to have been a surreal experience, with several interviewees recalling plots and script changes being made by Golan and Globus on the spot in their office as their minions surrounded them. At one point Golan became convinced that the chimp who starred as Clyde in Every Which Way But Loose should come under a Cannon contract, leading to a bizarre business meeting, with gawping executives looking on, where Golan sweet-talked the chimp as if he was expecting the animal and not the agent to sign the contract personally. The oddness of the Cannon output in part came from the pair’s shared love of combining genres no matter how clunkily they fit together, and neither had any shame in ordering a carbon copy of a successful release to be rushed into production. This extended to competing with and stealing from each other, the surreal end result being when both producers ended up releasing their own hastily - produced Lambada-themed movies on the same day following the divorce of their business partnership.

Golan, more than Globus it seems, emerges as a film mogul figure of huge appetites (“Jabba the Hutt on meth”, one calls him) who was convinced that at some point he would bring out his own Citizen Kane despite the conveyor belt of execrable films that would precede it. Both filmmakers were undeniably passionate about movies, one interviewee comments, but they crucially lacked the kind of passion that is strong enough to push an auteur into accepting the kind of compromises sometimes needed to ensure the final picture is stronger. Cinematographer Richard Edlund argues in an interview with Harley that, coming from a different culture and trying to barge into a new one, the Israeli duo arguable never “got” Hollywood and the American idiom, thus leading their films to feature dialogue that sounded like it had gone back and forth through Google Translate.

Nevertheless, a few figures interviewed for Hartley’s film suggest there are more noble elements to the Cannon legacy. What other studio, some wonder, would have taken a chance on a film like Tobe Hooper’s out-there remake of the sci-fi film Invaders From Mars, or let Zeffirelli have his way? Nevertheless, the end eventually came, others conclude, because Cannon stopped shamelessly copying studios like Warner Bros. and actually tried to be Warner Bros for real, leading to financially insane plans such as the buying up of giant company HQ buildings in LA and the booking of huge press tours in Cannes for a slate of movies that in most cases were little more than ideas on a napkin (at one point Golan can be seen boasting on camera that he actually had got a film deal agreed on a napkin). This shark-like forward motion led to financial and critical disasters such as the maligned Superman IV, films that were supposed to have moved Cannon into the big leagues.

Insightful and hilarious and very Eighties, Hartley’s film is as guilty a pleasure as the Cannon filmography it is trawling over. Essential viewing for those wanting to see what happened in the margins of Hollywood, and how Cannon can be contextualised in terms of the importance of the pre-sale deal and the later rise of studios like Miramax. The only thing that would've improved it would have been interview contributions from some of the more well-known names who did time in the trenches with Cannon, such as Norris and Sylvester Stallone. For UK audiences watching it, fond memories may well be stirred by footage of the old Cannon Cinemas - one of the many baubles bought up into the G&G empire.

A footnote: Menahem Golan passed away, at the age of 85, just before Hartley's film was completed. Appropriately, a title card at the end of the film informs us that Golan was approached to participate, and after turning Hartley down, promptly rushed his own official documentary - The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story Of Cannon Films - into production. He beat Hartley by three months.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2014
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Examination of exploitation cinema.
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Director: Mark Hartley

Writer: Mark Hartley, Mark Hartley

Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Molly Ringwald, Bo Derek, Marina Sirtis, Olivia d'Abo, Robert Forster, Richard Chamberlain, Elliott Gould, Mimi Rogers, Cassandra Peterson, Catherine Mary Stewart, Alex Winter, Franco Nero, Diane Franklin, Michael Dudikoff

Year: 2014

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: Australia, US, Israel, UK

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