Chicago, 1964: it’s the last weeks of high school for aspiring poet Preach (Glynn Turman) and his best friend, Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and they have a full slate of extracurricular activities: swinging dance parties, late-night joyrides, and the stumbling pursuit of romance. Of course, when you’re a young Black man in America, your coming-of-age story is far from complication-free. With Cooley High, director Michael Schultz and screenwriter Eric Monte—who drew on his own experiences growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project—arrived at something truly unique in 1970s cinema: an endearingly funny, tender, and authentic portrait of Black teens striving toward a brighter tomorrow, brought to life by a dynamic ensemble cast and set to a heavenly hit parade of Motown classics.
Michael Schultz’s Cooley High receives an all-new Blu-ray special edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original negative.
Right off it’s clear Criterion’s new presentation leans heavily towards teal, giving the film a far cooler look. I can’t say if this is how the film is supposed to look but considering the cold Chicago setting it’s most certainly suiting, and I found it mostly unproblematic in the end. The only area I think it may have possibly impacted things in a negative manner, if only by a little, is in the area of black levels. They’re inky and deep but they can get a little murky or flat in the darker scenes (nighttime interiors and such), cancelling out details. It’s possible that a UHD edition with HDR could have helped but as it is here detail levels can be limited in the shadows, in turn flattening the image.
The rest of the presentation is solid if imperfect. The fine film-grain present can maybe look a wee-bit buzzy in those darker sequences but does come off clean and natural throughout most of the film’s running time. The scan has also picked up an impressive level of detail and the image remains clean and sharp, retaining a photographic look. The restoration has also cleaned up things remarkably and damage is not an issue.
Minor quibbles aside I doubt the film has ever looked as good as it does here.
The film is presented with a single-channel lossless PCM soundtrack. Despite everything being centralized to that center channel the audio shows a commendable amount of range, especially when it comes to delivering the film’s impressive collection of 60’s songs. Dialogue also sounds sharp with no distortion present, and there are no signs of damage or heavy filtering. It sounds surprisingly good in the end.
This is sadly not a stacked edition, with comments and topics being repeated across the features we do get, yet seeing as how the film has never received anything remotely close to a special edition prior to this edition (through MGM’s own DVD and Olive’s Blu-ray) I’m sure fans of the film will be thankful there is anything at all.
A 9-minute making-of featurette created for TCM called The “Cooley High” Story is probably the weakest of the material we do get here, essentially summarizing everything else found in the other features with the only real benefit being that both actor Glynn Turman and writer Eric Monte appear, the latter through archival material. The other two features, a 66-minute Academy Tribute and a new 35-minute interview with director Michael Schultz prove significantly better.
The former is a panel discussion filmed in 2017 following a screening of the film and includes (amongst others) Schultz, his wife Gloria Schultz, son Brandon Schultz (who plays Tommy, the baby that throws Cochise’s scholarship letter into the toilet) actors Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Garrett Morris, and editor Christopher Holmes, with filmmaker Robert Townsend acting as moderator (and I'll point out that I missed Townsend appears briefly in the film). This program gets significantly deeper into the film’s production, director Schultz first explaining how he came on board and how he and Monte revamped the script, butting heads on occasion (Schultz mentions he removed all the profanity as he didn’t want there to be barrier from anyone seeing it). There’s then discussion around casting and the production (surprisingly the studio heads did not want Garrett Morris in the role of the teacher) before things turn to editing and the film’s music, the latter of which only appeared in the film thanks to sympathetic rights holders (though the deal they got apparently stalled the film from appearing on home video sooner). Townsend also talks about the impact the film had on him after seeing it, explaining how it has influenced his own work, and Schultz and others bring up some of the issues that arose with the studio heads. There’s also a great bonus here when Schultz talks about another of his films, Together for Days—featuring Clifton Davis, Lois Chiles and a super-young Samuel L. Jackson in his debut—complete with a clip from a recent restoration that Criterion thankfully doesn't cut out.
It’s a good program that benefits from the contribution of multiple participants, but I have to say the newer, more personal interview with Schultz (conducted by film scholar Racquel J. Gates) proves to be the best feature here. Some details do get repeated from the panel discussion around script development and casting, but he expands on these subjects and others, even getting a bit more into the relationship with American International studio head Samuel Z. Arkoff, who was looking for a “non-exploitive” film targeted towards a Black audience. This was all well and good but Schultz explains that difficulties did arise due to Arkoff and others having pre-conceived notions of what makes a “Black character” or a “Black story” and this led to a handful of difficulties, particularly when it came to casting. Schultz also stresses his desire to make fully realized characters and develop true relationships between them (Gates points out how the real love story in the film is the friendship between Cochise and Preach) with the two then covering the film’s legacy. It ends up being a very involving and personal discussion between the two, making it the standout feature here.
Surprisingly no trailer has been included, and there are no other interviews sadly (I’m not sure how well Morris is doing as of late health wise, but a career spanning interview with him would have been a great addition). Though Gates works in some of her own thoughts into the new interview there is an academic angle missing to the features, only filled in a bit by the new essay by Craigh Barbozah found in the included insert. His essay is at least a good read, contextualizing the film to the period and drawing comparisons to other films. Still, even if the new interview and the panel discussion are both great, the features are missing that special something.
The features aren't what they could be and the presentation’s color-grading is a bit questionable, but following many lackluster editions Criterion’s 4K restoration kicks new life into Schultz’s classic high school film.