Synopsis: Often called ‘the black American Graffiti’, Cooley High takes a nostalgic, poignant – and hilariously funny – look at black teen life in 1960’s Chicago.
It’s 1964. JFK has just been assassinated. Martha & the Vandellas, Little Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops rule the airwaves. And two high school students discover themselves – and the taste of freedom – for the first time. Preach (Glynn Truman), a serious-minded writer, and his best friend Cochise (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), a basketball hero headed for college, are best friends at Cooley High. Together they cut classes to go to the zoo, crash parties, put the hustle on some hustlers and dream about getting out of their impoverished, rough neighborhood. But when an innocent joy ride makes them the targets of two vengeful hoods, their already uncertain futures seem even further out of reach.
Cooley High 7.25
eyelights: its episodic, slice-of-life quality. its amazing soundtrack.
eyesores: its lack of true plot. its overly old cast. some its performances.
“We lived for today.”
‘Cooley High’ is a coming-of-age story set in and around the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago. Named after the Cooley Vocational High School, it was inspired by screenwriter Eric Monte’s own experiences.
Set in 1964, over the course of a few days, the episodic film follows a small group of high school chums as they play hooky from school, try to hook up with girls, party, play pranks and generally mess around.
Released in 1975, the low budget picture was a box office hit, landing 13 million dollars – then a large sum, especially for a company like American international Pictures and given its all-black main cast.
Though it wasn’t nearly as popular, it is considered the African-American ‘American Graffiti’. It was even popular enough that it was soon developed into the popular ‘What’s Happening!!’ television sitcom.
The picture begins by setting the stage, giving us longshots of Chicago’s urban sprawl until we eventually make our way to the poorer housing projects where Cochise, Preach and their friends hang out day and night.
Set to The Supremes’ rousing “Baby Love”, the picture is on a high note right out of the starting gate. Though the sights are grey and desolate, this incredible song has the power to interlace fondness to nostalgia.
As with ‘American Graffiti’, the soundtrack to ‘Cooley High’ is omnipresent, becoming a key player on par with its main characters – so much so, in fact, that the end credits have more song credits than there are actors.
In addition to The Supremes (with two songs), there are tracks by The Four Tops, The Marvelettes, The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, Junior Walker, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, and more!
Truth be told, the soundtrack alone makes this film worth watching.
But the characters and their antics are already fairly compelling. Though what we see is merely everyday stuff, it gives one a sense of what it was like to live in that neighbourhood at that age during that period in time.
That’s pretty cool. And fun.
In fact, the cast, though a bit old to be playing high schoolers, are actually fairly good at doing comedy and goofing off. Unfortunately, their approach is far too broad for drama, coming off unnatural, amateurish.
What’s interesting is that, due to its ensemble cast, ‘Cooley High’ initially looks like a group film. Ultimately, though, we discover that it’s really Preach’s story – everyone else gradually fades into obscurity over time.
(Aside for Cochise, whose fate is more sudden.)
It’s an interesting choice because Preach never seems to wisen up: he’s clearly very intelligent, but he’s spent his whole life goofing off, a coward who can’t face his own choices, let alone life. There’s little growth.
Mind you, the concluding captions suggest that he eventually got his act together, but this is never in evidence during the movie – even in the last scene, he avoids the funeral and looks on from a distance instead.
This is one instance where stronger writing and directing would have benefited the film.Mind you, given the low budget, they probably couldn’t afford a better cast and crew – sometimes, you just take what you can get.
Still, ‘American Graffiti’ cost about the same amount – and it’s a far superior film.
What bothered me the most about the picture is that it perpetuates stereotypes: it makes all the kids look delinquent and the school utterly derelict. Was it really that bad in real life or is this just an exaggeration?
Either way, it would have been nice to see another side of the coin.
For me, one of the highlights is a rad scene in which Cochise and Preach go for a joyride and get chased by a police car through a disused building. Interestingly, it was reminiscent of the mall scene in ‘The Blues Brothers’.
…which is also set in Chicago. (Hmmmm…)
Well, it would be fitting that this picture was influenced by a previous one, then eventually also influencing other films. That’s the nature of culture: the building of new ideas on top of older ones, and on and on.
Case-in-point: ‘Star Wars‘.
In any event, ‘Cooley High’ is an enjoyable flick. It’s not groundbreaking and it’s not award-winning stuff, but it’s a good time. Anyone who likes ‘American Graffiti‘, ‘The Blues Brothers‘ or even ‘Animal House’ should see it.
Sometimes it’s fun to hang out with a few friends.
Date of viewing: November 1+2, 2016