Studio: Dark Star Pictures
Director: Steve Mitchell
Writer: Steve Mitchell
Producer: Steve Mitchell, Matt Verboys, Dan McKeon
Stars: Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Yaphet Kotto, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Martin Scorsese, Fred Williamson
Actors, friends, and fellow filmmakers join Larry Cohen for a comprehensive retrospective of his maverick career in movies.
When we’re first formally introduced to the man of the hour, or hour and 45 minutes to be specific, he is seated in a gold-gilded chair vaguely reminiscent of a monarch’s throne. Really, there’s no fitter a pedestal upon which to perch Larry Cohen for his sitdown interview segments. Steve Mitchell’s fabulous documentary “King Cohen” regards its subject fairly as the movie spins down a Memory Lane of Cohen’s career. Yet it rightly recognizes the larger-than-life filmmaker as true cinema royalty, and never misses an opportunity to winkingly express that positive perspective to viewers.
Although a superlative self-promoter, Larry Cohen isn’t required to do the heavy lifting of providing praise for both his private and professional personas, which largely appear to be one and the same. Performers who have appeared in his projects, fellow moviemakers, even ex-wife Janelle Webb describe Cohen in such authentically effusive terms that virtually every off-the-cuff comment builds an idyllic image out of juicy pull quotes.
Film journalist F.X. Feeney correctly lauds Cohen as “the master of the premise.” In a sequence covering Cohen’s ahead-of-its-time comical commentary on interracial relationships with his directorial debut “Bone,” as well as the hailstorm of “Black Caesar” and “Hell Up in Harlem” initiating a blaxploitation avalanche, Yaphet Kotto likens Cohen to “the white Martin Luther King of movies.” Traci Lords sums up Larry Cohen succinctly by simply saying, “he’s pretty delicious.”
Not to be outshone, Cohen of course still steals spotlights to sell himself with wit, wisdom, and multiple memories tinted rose. Early in the doc, Cohen takes a seat at a convention center folding table, readying wares for autograph-seeking fans. Cohen says out loud, to no one in particular, “I’m just sitting here waiting to be adored by people. Anybody here like me?” Mischievous facetiousness only inhabits part of those words. In spite of all his industry accomplishments, Cohen genuinely wants to know he still matters. “King Cohen’s” abundant assembly of anecdotes, analysis, recollections, and tall tales assures us he definitely does, and reminds us precisely why he continues to remain relevant.
Oddly enough, Cohen isn’t his own most reliable narrator, and it isn’t for fudging facts to polish some stories brighter than absolute honesty would. Discussing the independent spirit driving his work ethic, the director explains, “I don’t want to confer with people. I don’t want to collaborate with people. I want to do the whole picture myself. That’s it.” The thing is, that’s not accurate. “King Cohen” paints a portrait of a man who may be a maverick, yet is universally respected for being a considerate artist and kind human being.
“King Cohen” opens on J.J. Abrams recounting a chance meeting with Cohen at, of all places, a bus stop when Abrams was a high schooler. Meeting again as peers years later, Cohen remembered their brief encounter in vivid detail, a fact surprising to no one familiar with Cohen’s personality.
From directors Joe Dante, Mick Garris, and John Landis to actors Eric Bogosian, Eric Roberts, and Robert Forster, it doesn’t appear as though any notable, living collaborator of Cohen’s was unwilling to appear for frank, funny, and heartfelt interviews. Every era of Cohen’s evolution through television and film sees itself represented, with essentially no particular project receiving too little or too much attention.
Although certainly celebratory in overall tone, “King Cohen” isn’t a superficial stroke job at all. When a movie has Martin Scorsese waxing philosophically about Cohen’s style underneath scenes from “Q – The Winged Serpent,” you get a full sense of how far Cohen’s body of work reaches. Much more than behind the scenes nostalgia or extended home video bonus content, “King Cohen” takes a terrific dive into the themes, motivations, and occasional controversies that make the man’s visions unique.
Steve Mitchell’s balance between being respectfully reverential and academically informative keeps Cohen’s profile from leaning in undesirable directions of dirty laundry tawdriness or useless puff piece. “King Cohen’s” only misstep involves curious placement of fawning fan testimonials. While a minor offense, a random teen/twentysomething at a convention doesn’t offer the best voice for defending “Bone” following discussions of its sexual subject matter and cultural climate distribution difficulties.
Otherwise, Mitchell cuts “King Cohen” with astute acuity. Exceptional editing is evidenced in an amusing sequence alternating between Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson remembering a “Black Caesar” stunt with drastically different takes. Only the slightest hint of acrimony comes across when Williamson playfully refutes Cohen’s version of events by declaring, “that’s a Larry myth,” while Williamson’s simultaneously steely gaze suggests fabrication and exaggeration aren’t at all out of the ordinary for Cohen.
The test of excellence for a documentary of this type involves measuring not only how well it presents its central figure, but how that presentation affects its audience. Coming away from “King Cohen,” you don’t just appreciate Larry Cohen’s movies or admire him as a personality, you envy Cohen for his incomparable abilities and achievements. Cohen’s expansive filmography defines itself through innovation, chutzpah, and unbelievably charmed serendipity unmatched by any other guerrilla indie icon. And “King Cohen” perfectly encapsulates Larry Cohen’s deeply rich career by offering a chef’s kiss blend of critical insight and thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.
Review Score: 95