King Cohen leaves you wanting to do only two things: see more Larry Cohen films and get the jingle from The Stuff out of your head.
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, outside of its sloppily long title, is the ideal delivery system for converting non-believers to the Church of Cohen. The maverick multi-hyphenate has lived an exciting life and boasts a storied career, so one would imagine a great documentary about his work and history would be similarly iconoclast. Any man responsible for two films as disparate as Black Caesar and It’s Alive deserves a truly outside-the-box approach. But this doc is pretty paint-by-numbers.
Director Steve Mitchell has put together a rather pedestrian piece, one full of the typical talking head interludes and largely linear structure one would expect for some TV special that might air as an interstitial on a premium cable movie network. But the reason it functions so well for newcomers to Cohen’s filmography is how much time we spend with Cohen himself and those who’ve worked with him over the years.
Sure, a different filmmaker may have tried to craft a documentary that was more adventurous, or more button-pushing to try to approximate Cohen’s creative spirit. But in a way, it’s preferable that this piece is so unadorned. Mitchell just gets out of the way and presents the basics of Cohen’s upbringing, his start in Hollywood and how he grew to become so good at making cheap, innovative works of cinema. It would be a more complete and interesting film if the documentary wasn’t so basic, but any more editorializing would probably get in the way of the best part, which is just hearing a bunch of ridiculous stories about Cohen’s films.
There’s so many entertaining anecdotes that are pure catnip for movie nerds. There’s a great bit featuring John Landis talk about filming Trading Places while Cohen shot his Chrysler building set film Q and how police had to be called on the set because they thought an actual terrorist attack was happening. It speaks to the core of Cohen’s directorial style: stealing authenticity for as cheaply as possible without a second’s thought of the potential consequences. He’s made a career out of making brilliant exploitation cinema with shoestring budgets and a lot of hustle, so it’s no surprise he has such a high opinion of his abilities, making his confessionals sound like your really cool uncle bragging about daring feats from his youth.
But as entertaining as Cohen himself is, so much of the film’s charm comes from the intersection between his own memories and those of his collaborators. Listening to guys like Joe Dante and Mick Garris talk about Cohen’s work as an inspiration place his accomplishments into a certain kind of schlocky canon, but hearing someone like Fred Williamson or Yaphet Kotto discuss what it was like to actually be out there running and gunning with the man himself makes the portrait more prismatic. Mitchell isn’t afraid to present multiple perspectives on Cohen’s recollections to temper any inherent hagiographic leanings.
King Cohen celebrates a chameleonic purveyor of pulp without just aggrandizing the man. It shows his foibles in equal measure to his achievements and does it with a casual flair. The film leaves you wanting to do only two things: see more Larry Cohen films and get the jingle from The Stuff out of your head. What more can you ask for?