Take a look at filmmaker Michael Schultz’s efforts and you’ll find a career that is filled with films that gracefully elide the experience of being Black in America with touching, honest depictions of everyday life with money as the decider of fate. Considered by many as his best work, Schultz’s 1975 comedy-drama Cooley High plays fast and loose with its characters and pace with vitality that’s infectious. The Criterion Collection presents the 1975 film on Blu-ray with great audio/video presentations that easily surpass previous releases. Add a few supplements and you have a Recommended release!
The idea of Cooley High came from writer Eric Monte, who compiled stories from his childhood living in the Cabrini-Green public housing project. What struck filmmaker Michael Schultz about Monte’s stories is how endearingly funny and tender everything was despite the tough way of life in Chicago during the early 1960s. Schultz took all those experiences, found a narrative through-line and worked with his wife/co-writer Gloria Schultz to develop the script. The result was a thoroughly funny, engaging and yes, somewhat-sad look at Black high school students on the precipice of graduating.
Cooley High has a bit of an odd history, as it was produced by American International Pictures, the studio releasing Blaxploitation almost monthly in the mid-1970s. The film couldn’t be the furthest from that genre, despite being marketed as the kind of salacious entertainment that Blaxploitation provided. What we get is a slice-of-life drama that grooves on a Motown soundtrack filled with the hits and a bevy of moments that cut right to the heart of being human and how that’s much different for Black people than others. It’s been 47 years since Cooley High hit theaters and what sticks out is the genuine authenticity in the filmmaking, much different than the white-directed films about Black life from the same period.
On the streets of Chicago in 1964, aspiring poet Preach (Glynn Turman) and his best friend, Cochise (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) are on the edge of graduating high school. Not before they celebrate the waning days of childhood with a full slate of extracurricular activities, though! As Preach and Cochise stumble into romance, dance parties, and late-night joyrides, complications ensue and the despairing reality starts to creep in. Schultz adeptly shifts keeps the lighthearted tone active throughout, instead opting to focus on the little, beautiful moments within Preach and Cochise’s travels.
Part of what’s so impressive about Cooley High is that it applies the exact level of swooning vibrancy to its cinematography as it does the story. The camera isn’t exactly an observer, though it’s excitedly there to triumphantly announce lasting moments, like several characters tumbling through a movie screen in a lighthearted brawl. Small asides are littered throughout the film like this and they’re not scene-dressing. Rather, they’re the deep and intimate depictions of normal, everyday Black life that even the most mundane of tasks deserve.
Cooley High grows beyond itself on screen, withholding the power of image-making that punches right into your mind with touching vibrancy. The film was once referred to as “the Black American Graffiti”, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s better.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Cooley High is presented by Criterion with a dual-layer, BD50 Blu-ray disc that’s housed in their standard thick clear case. Inside the case is a well-appointed booklet with an essay by critic Craigh Barboza, too. The Blu-ray disc fires up to a standard menu with options to play the movie, explore chapters, browse supplements and add subtitles.
Compare this new 1080p presentation sourced from a 4K digital transfer (supervised by Schultz) to Olive Films’ 2015 Blu-ray release and you’ll see a huge upgrade in fidelity almost immediately. Where Olive’s release suffered from an anemic bitrate and a drabber color scheme, this new presentation sings with color and deep texture. Even though the presentation does push a bit too hard towards teal that softens the colors a bit, but I can’t speak for how the film originally looked, so that may be true to the source. My one minor grievance is that film grain does look noisy in some of the darker sequences, although grain is nicely resolved throughout the rest. This is the best the film has ever looked at home.
Criterion supplies this release with a lossless LPCM monaural mix that distributes the limited soundscape evenly. Dialogue is crisp and those classic Motown tunes sound a bit flat, but I chalk that up to production limitations more than anything. Little-to-no damage is heard in this clean and consistent track.
Cooley High has only received a barebones Blu-ray release previously, so it’s a pleasure to see that Criterion has added a few supplements to round out the terrific film. A 35-minute newly filmed interview with director Michael Schultz sticks out as the best feature, with the filmmaker breathlessly going over production details, like how they filmed in the Cabrini-Green projects with the collaboration of local gang members. Schultz also describes the experience of working with both professional and non-professional actors in the film.
Michael Schultz’s classic slice-of-life drama Cooley High receives a gorgeous new HD transfer and plenty of supplements to enjoy in Criterion’s new one-disc Blu-ray release of the film. The film has never looked this good at home and the supplements nicely round out the terrific video presentation. This release comes Recommended!