Sunday, December 11, 2022

Basketball Days and High Nights in Michael Schultz’s Exuberant Cooley High

(Michael Schultz, USA, 1975, 107 minutes) 

Cooley High, director Michael Schultz's third feature, wasn't the story of his high school days, but rather screenwriter Eric Monte's. Schultz grew up in Milwaukee, while Monte grew up in Chicago, where Schultz shot his 1975 film on location at and around the same Cabrini-Green housing project featured in Candyman. Monte would also set his series Good Times (co-created with Mike Evans), which ran on CBS for six seasons, at Cabrini-Green. 

While working on the film, though, Schulz's producers encouraged him to avoid predictability and cliché, so he made changes as he went along that incorporated elements from his own life, in addition to that of his mostly local, mostly non-professional cast. The result: a film that feels like the product of a specific sensibility, rooted to a particular place and time, and as fresh as if it were made yesterday--even though it's set in 1964.

Monte's cinematic counterpart, Leroy "Preach" Jackson (Broadway veteran Glynn Turman looking younger than his then-28 years), is a smart kid who dreams of going to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter. His best friend, all-city basketball dynamo Richard "Cochise" Morris (Claudine's Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), is counting on a college scholarship. They're often accompanied by amiable, less ambitious goof Pooter (Corin Rogers). The finished film is proof that Monte-as-Preach's dream came true. By the end, it will also serve as proof that some of his associates weren't quite so lucky. 

Schultz depicts the ups and downs of their senior year at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School, a real institution. They play hooky to knock about the zoo, hang out at the local diner, chat up the ladies--like Cynthia Davis's Brenda--at house parties, and go for a joyride in a stolen vehicle (the blissful house party dance sequence predicts Steve McQueen's sublime Lover's Rock). 

Preach and Cochise aren't full-fledged juvenile delinquents, but their uncontainable high spirits sometimes lead to conflicts with parents and other authority figures. The joyride, at first, just seems like an ill-advised, if harmless stunt. Though no one gets hurt, the after effects will prove cataclysmic. In a sign of a very different time, Turman--rather than a professional driver--drove the car at high speed through tricky terrain, putting the fear of God into passengers Stone (Sherman Smith) and Robert (Norman Gibson), two non-actors who weren't exactly acting their fear.

Though Smith and Gibson had never acted before, the filmmaker and his wife, casting director Gloria Schultz, liked their look. Cooley High gave the gang members a chance to segue from stealing to acting. Only 15 months after the film's release, however, Gibson was murdered during a robbery. Smith, on the other hand, is still acting today, thanks to Jackie Taylor, a cast member who founded a theatrical ensemble and invited him to join. 

It's one of many ways Cooley High changed lives in Schultz's drive for authenticity. When he was looking for an actor to play Mr. Mason, for instance, he turned to 38-year-old Garrett Morris, a struggling New York actor who was paying the bills by teaching. Though Schultz's producers balked, since they were hoping for a Sidney Poitier type, Schultze went to bat for Morris, who fully earns his faith. When the cops come calling for the teenaged joyriders the next day, Mr. Mason pulls some strings to help the two most promising participants avoid a misdemeanor felony charge. His good deed will backfire when Stone and Robert assume that Preach and Cochise snitched on them.  

Only four months after Cooley High's release, Morris made his debut on Saturday Night Live as a Not Ready for Primetime Player. He had acted before he met Schultz, but afterward, he became a household name. 

Beyond the writing, the acting, and the directing, there's another reason Cooley High maintains a buoyant tone, despite a tragic turn towards the end, and that's the music. From top to bottom, it's filled with The Sound of Young America: Motown hits from the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas. Though Samuel Arkoff's American International Pictures, the home of exploitation fare like Sheba Baby, provided Schultz with a modest budget, Suzanne de Passe at Motown believed in the project, and let him have the music he wanted for a reasonable price. It's hard to believe it would be that easy today--though this licensing ease would cause problems once home video came into play.

If the film lacked big stars, it didn't need them, and Cooley High was a hit. Two months later, Hilton-Jacobs would make his debut as Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter, which ran for four seasons on ABC. Though he's worked steadily since, it remains his best known role. 

One year later, Schultz would make the leap from AIP to Universal with Car Wash, another Black comedy, this time with bigger stars. In 1976, ABC also launched the Eric Monte-created, Cooley High-inspired What’s Happening!!, though so many details were changed--like the shift from Chicago to Los Angeles--that it feels like a different story, even if the action also revolves around three high school students, including Ernest Thomas's Roger "Raj" Thomas, a bespectacled aspiring writer, much like the young Monte. 

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I watched Good Times, Welcome Back, Kotter, and What’s Happening!!, but I don't remember hearing anything about Cooley High. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it if I had, not least because Schultz removed most of the R-rated language from Monte's script to secure the PG rating that opened it up to a wider audience. Instead, I caught up with it a few years ago on network TV. That may not have been the ideal context, but it aired mostly intact. I got the gist--and I loved it. 

The lack of visibility, in the years after its release, was exacerbated by Cooley High's unavailability on videocassette due to the music rights. After Universal acquired Motown in 1988, the rights were cleared, and the film started to make the home-video rounds on DVD, culminating in this year's Criterion Collection Blu-ray, which lacks a commentary track, but compensates with context-rich extra features. 

Cooley High (along with actor Glynn Turman) also receives pride of place in Elvis Mitchell's excellent new Netflix documentary Is That Black Enough for You?!? Mitchell lets Preach have the last word, since the concluding speech from Schultz's film also concludes Mitchell's tribute to the Black cinema of his formative years. 

Sadly, Eric Monte, who remains among the living, appears only in archival footage in a featurette on the Criterion release. Cooley High, the film, differs from his high school years in certain respects--unlike Preach, he dropped out during his junior year and joined the Army--but the story began with him. 

In the late 1970s, everything started to fall apart for Monte. It was a swirl of lawsuits, failed projects, alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness. Reportedly, he is now clean and living in Portland, Oregon. I hope he is well, and I hope he receives financial compensation from this new release.

Monte helped to make a different kind of Black entertainment possible in the 1970s: lively, funny stories about regular, working-class people, free from objectification, stereotyping, and kitchen-sink miserablism.

Michael Schultz, who would also shift to television--where he continues to work regularly in his 80s--brought Monte's story to life, and he did it justice. If anything, he made it better by bringing so much of himself and his collaborators, including their priceless ad libs, into the finished product.  

In some ways, Preach is a composite character standing for any young striver trying to get somewhere against seemingly insurmountable odds, trying to have fun, and trying to savor every precious detail along the way.

The Criterion Collection releases Cooley High on Blu-ray on Dec 13, 2022. Images from The Dissolve (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Glynn Turman), Movie Valhalla (Sherman Smith, Norman Gibson, Turman, and Jacobs), the IMDb (Garrett Morris, Jacobs, and Turman), MeTV (Jacobs, Gabe Kaplan, and the Sweathogs), The Criterion Collection (Turman and Jacobs), and Washington University Digital Gateway (poster image).

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