Is it possible to be a great filmmaker and not make great films? Steve Mitchell’s entertaining documentary “King Cohen” makes that case for prolific writer-director-producer Larry Cohen, who worked steadily in New York and Hollywood from the late ‘50s to the 2000s, inspiring other independent artists with his creativity and ingenuity — without ever really delivering a masterpiece.
Don’t misunderstand: Cohen’s responsible for some of the most memorable B-movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, including “Black Caesar,” “It’s Alive,” “Q,” “The Stuff” and “God Told Me To” (the latter of which comes closest to peerless genius). But his real legacy may be the way he worked.
Mitchell follows a conventional bio-doc model with “King Cohen,” leaning heavily on interviews with the man himself, intercut with copious clips from his movies and comments from frequent collaborators (such as actors Michael Moriarty and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson) and admiring peers (fellow directors John Landis, Joe Dante, and Martin Scorsese).
The film drags a bit in its final third, when the stories start to get repetitive and the movies that Cohen talks about are less interesting. But the anecdotes from Cohen’s early years in TV, coming up with a new salable idea nearly every day — and the tales of how he made impressive-looking genre films by hiring veteran crews that couldn’t find work and “stealing” shots without permits — are like a blueprint for how a clever artist can get a lot from a little.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood