There is a police parade walking down the street. Dozens of men in uniform are walking in formation, surrounded by revelers. Suddenly, Andy Kaufman pulls out a gun and shoots someone down. He is subdued and shot. With his last breath, he says “God told me to.” I have only seen one Larry Cohen film, and yet it managed to contain one scene which placed itself directly into my brain. Cohen has spent decades writing intriguing trash movies that he can sell to other filmmakers, and directing ones that he can’t pass on. With the recent renaissance of exploitation cinema, it was only a matter of time before Cohen got his own doc, Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen.
Unfortunately, formally-speaking, this is a paint-by-numbers bio-doc: a famous man tells a story about the subject, credits, the subject speaks, followed by a montage intercutting scenes from his works along with famous people and fans talking about how great the subject is. This is the template of this type of documentary, and it seems like no one involved with the production wants to do anything about it. Sometimes, the content manages to transcend the form and still create a great doc and sometimes it simply cannot – this is a case of the former. While the linear, film-focused narrative does lead to the occasional lull, including pretty much everything after the ninety-minute mark, Cohen’s stories of his filmmaking process (specifically his aversion to attaining shooting permits) makes for an entertaining watch. It cannot be overstated how strange these stories are, to the point where Cohen himself at one point exclaims, “if anyone else told me these stories, I would tell them they are full of shit!”
There is the occasional bit of misinformation for the sake of either blatant hero worship or a bit of better storytelling—a particularly egregious example being the documentary’s suggestion that Cohen either invented or popularized blaxploitation, completely ignoring Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song—but it somehow fits in with the rest of the film and its unbelievable stories.
King Cohen will be an important and enjoyable documentary for anyone with an interest in guerrilla filmmaking.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam