Cooley High (1975)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. Since it’s Chicago Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back on some essential Chicago movies, set (and often filmed) in the Windy City.

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Cooley High (1975)

If a movie is shot in Chicago, there’s always a decent chance that it will include footage of the L. The city’s elevated train system snakes through some of its most photographed (and photogenic) areas, to the extent that it’s possible to capture a glimpse of it purely by accident, as it glides by in the background of a shot. Furthermore, it’s as distinctive as any building—instant proof that a film is both set and made in the Windy City. The L makes several cameos in Cooley High, including a prominent appearance during the opening credits. But this isn’t a film that treats the train simply like a mobile landmark. The L is an essential supporting player in the lives of the characters. They use it as transportation around the city (hopping the turnstile when they can’t pay), as a rendezvous point, as a geographical marker. In one scene, it even becomes an inconsistent detail during a police investigation, as one kid can’t remember if his phony story involves him taking the bus or the train.

It’s not inconsequential, the repeat involvement of the L. This detail and a dozen more mark Cooley High as a film about Chicago, as opposed to one incidentally set there—a resident’s vision of the city, rather than a tourist’s. We follow a pair of smart, wisecracking high-school seniors, Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), as they cut class, chase skirt, and treat the Chicago of 1964 like one big playground. Screenwriter Eric Monte hails from the Cabrini-Green Projects, just like his characters, and he went to the (now closed) Cooley Vocational High School. His memories animate the film’s riotous tomfoolery: It’s a feature-length party that feels steeped in anecdote, in half-remembered personalities, and especially in an impression of the city as an exciting place to grow up. (Monte has claimed he wrote the film partially to dispel more conventionally dire accounts of life in the projects—to capture the highs, and not just the lows, of his upbringing.)

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With its sprawling cast of characters, digressive plot, and hit soundtrack (in this case, a boisterous Motown primer), Cooley High has been compared to another last-days-of-youth movie that came out just two years earlier, American Graffiti. Both films inevitably lace their fun with melancholy, chasing a long, wild coming-of-age bacchanal with the impending hangover of adult life. Difference is, Cooley High’s eulogy for childhood turns out to be much more sadly literal. But that harsh reality check isn’t really what sticks with you. Like Monte, fans of this film tend to remember the good stuff: a goofy brawl in a movie theater, replacing the monster movie on screen with some silhouetted combat; a late-night joyride that becomes a high-speed chase; and the numerous scenes of Preach and Cochise fast-talking themselves in and out of trouble. Behind them, Chicago looms large—not just through the shots of its iconic skyline but also in the little details of these “basketball days” and “high nights.”

Availability: Cooley High is available on DVD through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased digitally through VUDU.

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