From the same producer (Steve Krantz)/writer (Eric Monte) team of the previous year’s THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT, came COOLEY HIGH, American International Pictures’ (AIP’s) seminal urban comedy/drama which was released in the midst of the Blaxploitation craze of the 1970s. The film was a substantial success for AIP (and a departure from their usual exploitive drive-in fare) and Monte (who had just scored big as co-creator of the hit series “Good Times”) would soon after see the film loosely adapted as a popular ABC comedy series. Also helping to spawn the careers of several up-and-coming small screen stars, COOLEY HIGH makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Olive Films.
In 1964 on the North Side of Chicago, high school buddies Preach (Glynn Turman, J.D.’S REVENGE) and Coshise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, YOUNGBLOOD) are dream-driven individuals yet totally disinterested with schoolwork. Coshise is awarded a scholarship and Preach has aspirations of being a screenwriter, but the pair spends their days with different sets of friends cutting class, sneaking into the zoo, sipping wine in alleys, smoking dope, shooting dice and slow-dancing with the local girls they’re trying to make it with. Preach seduces a pretty and brainy student named Brenda (Cynthia Davis, who apparently only made one movie) and they wind up losing their virginity together (in a tender love scene featuring some tastefully displayed nudity that only a PG movie in the 1970s could get away with). Things take a turn for the worst when Preach and Cochise jump in a Cadillac with two delinquents; Preach takes over the steering wheel, they’re chased by the police, and they end up crashing the car before taking off on foot. Not knowing that the car was stolen, they are soon arrested, but with their concerned teacher Mr. Mason (Garrett Morris, “Two Broke Girls”) vouching for them to his detective friend, the boys are set free while their two criminal cohorts serve time, vowing to do them harm (over a misunderstanding) as soon as they are released.
As reinforced by AIP’s cutesy advertising campaign for the film, COOLEY HIGH is known as “the Black version of AMERICAN GRAFFITI” and as a nostalgic cinematic trip of frivolity and tragedy, it even ends with similar “where are they now” descriptions for a number of the main characters. Shot outside the studio system for a reported budget of around $750,000, the film plays out as a series of humorous vignettes (one involving a gullible “honky” john double-crossed by a small-time pimp) and sight gags (a caged gorilla flings his feces at one of the boy’s chest, Cochise finds a letter from a university thrown in the toilet by his baby brother, etc.) but the humor is often edgy without being crude, and when the dramatic subtlety comes into play, it’s thought-provoking stuff. Shooting the film on location in Chicago, in around the housing-projects of the North Side, gives the film a sense of urban authenticity, and many of the supporting cast (including Preach’s mama) were actual residents rather than trained actors. Even though he was pushing 30 at the time, Turman does a terrific turn as Preach, as do Hilton-Jacobs and Morris, both who would begin their run on two highly successful TV series the same year (“Welcome Back Kotter” and “Saturday Night Live”).
Although the music score is by Freddie Perren (RECORD CITY), a number of iconic Motown tunes were secured for the soundtrack and include the likes of The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha & The Vandellas, The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Luther Allison, Barrett Strong and Junior Walker & The All-Stars. Although the film is set in 1964, some of these songs were actually released after that time, but the film has more than a few anachronisms (including numerous 1970s cars in view) that you’ll just have to overlook. Monster movie fans will be delighted to see an unforgettable scene which takes place in a theater showing GODZILLA VS. THE THING (another AIP property, released by them in 1964) where a riot breaks out! In 1976, ABC’s WHAT’S HAPPENING!! became the sitcom based on this film, with only slight similarities, as COOLEY HIGH did not feature three obese main characters having insults flung at them at every given opportunity. Like COOLEY HIGH, WHAT’S HAPPENING!! does have a bespectacled main character (in this case, Rog) as an inspiring writer (and another actor pushing 30 playing a high school student), a sister named Dee, and a mama who works a number of jobs to support her family and is not afraid to demand her son get his belt so she can put him across his knee and give him a nice whipping! The meek yet lovable sidekick character Pooter (played by Corin Rogers) likely inspired WHAT’S HAPPENING!!’s Dwayne (played by Haywood Nelson). Look out for a very young, uncredited Robert Townsend as a high school basketballer.
Previously released by MGM on DVD in a full screen, non-anamorphic transfer, Olive Films remedies that release with their Blu-ray (also being made available on standard DVD using the same transfer) which presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in a 1080p transfer utilizing MGM’s recent HD master. Colors are deep and vivid, fleshtones appear realistic and detail is solid, with COOLEY HIGH never looking better. The DTS-HD Master Audio track provides the dialogue, music and other earthy sounds perfectly. No subtitle options or extras are on the disc. (George R. Reis)
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