There’s a scene in King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen where the titular subject recalls his 1973 gangster movie Black Caesar and why he decided to make it a story about black characters. “So what?” is his response. This sums up Larry Cohen in a nutshell. Black Caesar could easily have been retooled as another mobster story about Italian-Americans, featuring a safe bet cast of white actors. But audiences had seen that movie too many times to count. Cohen wanted to give some black actors a job for a change, as well as bring his own fresh spin to a familiar genre.
As a filmmaker, Cohen has always done things a little bit differently, though. Throughout his career, he’s marched to the beat of his own drum, refusing to play it safe as he goes. Even when he was still playing the game and writing for network television during the ’50s and ’60s, he was a different breed. One of his earliest shows was the hit Western series Branded, which was born from an idea he made up on the spot right before he pitched it to execs that day. Meanwhile, a subsequent show, the sci-fi series The Invaders, saw him slip social commentary pertaining to America’s fear of communism past studio heads who wanted to avoid politics in their programming. However, Cohen didn’t want to sneakily inject his viewpoints into his work — he wanted to make them known. This, coupled with his need for full creative autonomy over his ideas, is why he decided to start making his own movies.
Cohen’s films have never shied away from provocation and addressing hot-button topics. His 1971 feature debut, Bone, is a biting racial satire that no distributor wanted to touch at the time, but that didn’t stop Cohen from continuing to address similar themes in subsequent efforts. No matter how wild his premises have been — and they have been wild, including movies about killer babies and deadly yogurt — Cohen has been responsible for some of the most socially charged genre fare in the history of American cinema.
Cohen is also a master thief. During his heyday, he shot his films around New York City without obtaining filming permits, sometimes at the risk of endangering people’s well-being in the process. If a taxicab ever sped through a Big Apple sidewalk between the ’70s and early ’90s, then chances are Cohen was filming a car chase scene for a nutty exploitation picture. His actors fought in airports and interrupted police parades, yet they always managed to emerge unscathed and free from legal ramifications.
Cohen’s ability to make things up on the spot extended to his filmmaking as well. Hell Up In Harlem, the sequel to Black Caesar, didn’t even have a script when they started shooting. Cohen just came up with ideas in the heat of the moment and still managed to deliver a wildly entertaining movie. Every risk he took, though, was so he could keep on making movies on his own terms — as the writer, director, and main producer.
A documentary about Cohen’s career is long overdue, but as the old saying goes, it’s better late than never. Thankfully, director Steve Mitchell delivers a definitive overview of Cohen’s life and work that’s both informative and entertaining. And much like Alex Stapleton‘s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel was to Roger Corman, King Cohen is a warm and fuzzy tribute to a fringe filmmaker who’s admired by his some A-list peers. Featuring insights from Martin Scorsese, JJ Abrams, Joe Dante, John Landis, and others, Mitchell’s doc assembles an impressive lineup of guests to celebrate the legacy of a true one of a kind maverick. General audiences might not be familiar with the name Larry Cohen, but they can bet some of their favorite directors were influenced by him.
Needless to say, Cohen has lots of admirers within the industry. Here, they discuss his rule-breaking history and pragmatic approach to filmmaking with sheer affection and respect. Landis, for example, recalls the time when Cohen inadvertently disrupted the filming of Trading Places because production on Q: The Winged Serpent, which was happening nearby, caused a minor city-wide panic. Scorsese, meanwhile, is full of praise for the way Cohen found award-winning actors and crew members who’d been forgotten for the most part and gave them another chance to shine. The doc is full of these moments, and they shed some light on Cohen’s unique filmmaking process, as well as his love of movies and making them. A part of Cohen’s magic was his ability to find out of work talent who needed a gig, but he also did it because he was a fan himself, first and foremost.
Those who’ve followed Cohen’s career are aware of his cheeky approach to the movie business. Therefore, Mitchell’s film shares a lot of details some of the doc’s target audience will already know. Still, there’s great joy to be found in seeing fellow filmmakers, friends, and fans share their fondness and bewilderment for the man and his work. Cohen himself also takes a trip down memory lane with all the heart, personality, and humor that he’s known for. Even in this seventies, he’s still upbeat, lively, and intelligent, and all of his segments in the doc are packed with laughs and warm-hearted sentiments. The best stories are the ones where he shares how he managed to pull off illegal feats without getting caught, which should be inspirational to any aspiring indie director who wants to put production values into their movies without paying a dime for them. As far as honoring a cult icon goes, King Cohen is the love letter and thorough career retrospective it needs to be.
That said, I’d also implore newcomers to give King Cohen a chance as well — it’s very accessible. If the doc doesn’t make you want to delve into Cohen’s filmography afterward then so be it. His movies are weird and not for everyone. But as a document of a bygone era of filmmaking, it’s wholly fascinating. Without going into spoilers, even the smallest anecdotes in King Cohen reveal a lot about what attitudes in the movie business — and society — were like when he was in his prime. When he started making movies, the landscape was changing in many ways, and Cohen played his own small part in helping break down some barriers.
The King might not have attained the levels of fame he deserved, but the satire in some of his movies still packs one hell of a punch to this day. Take Bone, for example, which explores many of the same themes regarding race relations that Jordan Peele probed in his smash hit Get Out a couple of years ago. Or The Stuff, which raised concerns about the toxins consumers were putting in their bodies and the influence Big Pharma has on our society. King Cohen is entertaining and feel-good for its entire duration, but it does a great job of reminding us that Cohen’s ideas, which were radical and out there for many at the time, turned out to be quite prescient.