In 1973, American Graffiti started a new template for the teen high school movie. Set in 1962 Modesto, CA, American Graffiti presented a nostalgic look at teenage life in the days of old-fashioned values, just as Vietnam and Hippies were about to forever change our cultural landscape. Based on George Lucas’ idealized memory, American Graffiti presented a look at white suburban life as it represented youth, the proto-John Hughes effect, as it were.
1975’s Cooley High took the building blocks of American Graffiti – the nostalgia, the old school soundtrack, a world on the brink of change – and rearranged them into what is more recognizable as the teen sex comedy formula. Set in 1964’s Chicago, IL, in and around the Cabrini-Green projects, Cooley High presents a look at the black teenage experience in the ’60s, also on the brink of change. Where American Graffiti felt innocent to the point of naivete, Cooley High has more of a real-life feel including robberies, car jacking, prostitutes, gambling, and drugs.
Writer Eric Monte said that he wanted to make this movie to dispel the myths of the projects. It wasn’t pure misery for everybody, and the teenagers lived it up as they could. Cooley High isn’t a gang movie, nor is it misery porn. What makes Cooley High so fun is that its essence is the basic modern teen comedy set in urban Chicago. After it became a success, Eric Monte re-worked Cooley High into the sitcom What’s Happening!!, elements of Cooley High showed up in Porky’s and in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Director Michael Schultz would go on to have a fairly infamous career, reaching highs with Car Wash and The Last Dragon while lows include Disorderlies and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His best movies were able to grasp genre at its core and reform it for a new audience. He wasn’t the most visually inventive (though, as the above image shows, he certainly knew how to put a frame together), but he possessed an ability to capture comedic performances at their best.
Cooley High airs tonight at midnight on Turner Classic Movies.