Rise and shine, crash and burn: The untold story of Cannon films

October 23, 2014

To become a filmmaker, “You have to steal the money, kill your aunt, take her money, make your movie.” So says Menahem Golan in Hilla Medalia’s documentary, “The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films,” which will screen as the centerpiece of the Israel Film Festival on Oct. 30. 

The documentary traces how Golan, who died this past August at 85, and his cousin, Yoram Globus, helped launch the fledgling Israeli film industry in the 1960s, as well as the epic rise and fall of their infamous Hollywood independent studio, the Cannon Group, in the 1980s. During their heyday, the cousins were renowned for creating B-movie exploitation flicks with stars such as Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, as well as the occasional art-house film with directors such as Roman Polanski and John Cassavetes. 

The story unfolds largely through interviews with Globus, who was the moneymaker of the duo, and Golan, along with lively excerpts from their films and lots of archival footage. (In one clip, Golan leaves his family seder to take a call from James Coburn’s agent.) There also are glimpses of artifacts, such as the cocktail napkin upon which Golan and Jean-Luc Godard signed their contract to make the 1987 film “King Lear.” 

“The Go-Go Boys” is one of two current documentaries chronicling the Cannon saga  the other is Mark Hartley’s “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films” but Medalia’s is the only movie authorized by Golan and Globus and featuring interviews with the filmmakers. 

During a conversation from her home in Tel Aviv, Medalia (“Dancing in Jaffa”) said it was easy to schedule initial meetings with the cousins because she was introduced to them by one of Globus’ sons. But the process of making the film, she added, wasn’t always easy. It took her six months to get the notoriously private Globus to sit down for an on-camera interview, and two years for him to discuss Cannon’s demise on screen.

And the obstreperous, if likable, Golan staunchly refused to describe any of his personal or professional failures. “There were none,” he brashly tells Medalia, 37, in the film. “Who are you to [suggest] something like that? … Even if I had failures, I erased them from my life. They never existed.” 

Nevertheless, Medalia manages to chronicle the less-than-glorious aspects of Golan and Globus’ career as well as their lofty successes. Her documentary describes the reviews that use words such as “revolting” and “shlock” to describe Cannon films; there’s a clip of film critic Gene Siskel dubbing the cousins “not true filmmakers, just true salesmen.” We learn that Golan offered Sylvester Stallone some $13 million — twice the actor’s usual salary — to star in the 1987 arm-wrestling flop “Over the Top,” and that Cannon eventually would accrue massive debts as it began its downward spiral in the late 1980s. 

“But more than anything, the documentary is about [Golan and Globus’] journey,” Medalia said. 

That journey began as the cousins were growing up in Tiberias, where Globus worked at his father’s cinema and Golan bribed neighbors to watch his own home movies by offering each viewer a penny to attend the screenings. 

Golan eventually invited Globus to work at his Noah Films, and by the early 1970s, the cousins were making Israeli hits such as “I Love You Rosa,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. The international success of their teen comedy “Lemon Popsicle” prompted the filmmakers to try their luck in Hollywood in the late 1970s. 

In those days, Israel did not allow citizens to take much money out of the country, so Golan and Globus arrived in Los Angeles with just $500 in their pockets, lived as roommates in a modest apartment and ate sausages for supper. But their wheelings and dealings quickly put them on the Hollywood map, as they began to produce what would become hundreds of films, some of them directed by Golan. Among the action movies they churned out were “The Delta Force” starring Norris and several of Bronson’s “Death Wish” sequels. 

In “The Go-Go Boys,” martial-arts ex pert Jean-Claude Van Damme recalls how he first met Golan while working as a waiter at a French restaurant, when he impressed the filmmaker by rubbing Golan’s head with one foot as he held a bowl of soup without spilling a drop. At their subsequent meeting, Van Damme cried and begged until the mogul declared, “I’m going to make you a movie star,” and did just that by casting him as the lead in 1988’s “Bloodsport.” 

Elsewhere in the documentary, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky describes pitching Golan his idea for the film that would become “Runaway Train” while the Israeli mogul was shaving and wearing nothing but his underwear. Actor Jon Voight earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award for his performance in the drama. 

As the cousins skyrocketed to success, however, they sorely neglected their families: “There were times I wanted a father … and he wasn’t there,” Globus’ son, Ram, says in the film. “My father was married to Menahem and the industry above all.” 

Indeed, Golan and Globus forged a relationship that was akin to a marriage, even signing each other’s names on checks. And their breakup, as Golan puts it, was “a divorce” that began when Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti bailed out the company, then hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, in the late 1980s. 

“Yoram and Parretti basically told Menahem that he had to stop making films for six months, but the next day Menahem signed 10 new projects,” Medalia said from Tel Aviv. “So that was the end for Yoram, and Menahem said, ‘I’m leaving everything; it’s a divorce.’ ” 

Golan eventually departed the United States to make films in Israel, and Globus also returned to the Jewish state after his company fell apart in the wake of a scandal involving Parretti and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 

It was Globus who successfully reinvented himself back home, founding what is now he largest film and television studio in Israel, while Golan’s movies crashed and burned at the box office. 

In a poignant scene near the end of “The Go-Go Boys,” Globus walks in on an interview Medalia is conducting with Golan at Globus’ film studio in Neve Ilan, and Golan begs his cousin to again make films with him, insisting, “I have a script that will get us the American Oscar.” But Globus shrugs, says he has a meeting with executives from Paramount, and walks out of the room. 

The cousins did reconcile, somewhat, by the time “The Go-Go Boys” premiered at Cannes; Golan was then frail and using a wheelchair after breaking his hip, but insisted upon walking up the stairs to the Palais des Festivals while heavily leaning on friends, Medalia said. 

She added that both Golan and Globus are satisfied with her documentary, even though Golan would have preferred a happier ending. “He really wanted it to be that he and Yoram are friends and are making a new movie, but I told him, ‘This is not the reality,’ ” Medalia said. “So we settled on me changing the music to more hopeful music at the end of the film.” 

Medalia went on to describe Golan as “a very positive person” who was writing scripts up until the day of his death; since Golan died after collapsing on the street near his Jaffa home in August, she’s been hoping her movie will help keep his memory alive: “The film lets people know how big both Golan and Globus once were, because many people don’t know their full story.”

For tickets and information about screenings of “The Go-Go Boys,” as well as Medalia’s documentary “Dancing in Jaffa, visit http://www.dancinginjaffa.com/

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