Chicago as seen through the windows of 'Cooley High'

June 23, 2010

The movie "Cooley High" was released 35 years ago this week.

Made in 1975, the bittersweet tale of a group of Cabrini Green kids coming-of-age in the mid-1960s was dismissed as a black "American Graffiti" at the time. History has been a lot more kind, however, and the characters of Preach, Cochise, Pooter, Stone & Robert, Brenda -- oh, yes, Brenda -- and G.C. Cameron's heartbreaking "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" from the movie's soundtrack are well-established parts of the black pop culture universe. (My only beef with the movie is a minor one: it has a Motown soundtrack when the film cries out for Chicago Soul artists like The Impressions, Barbara Acklin, Billy Butler, the folks at Chess Records and others. But I can get over that.)

"Cooley High" also has a blast with Chicago locales, with Milwaukee-born director Michael Schultz largely skipping the architectural eye-candy of downtown in favor of the street corner grit of the Cabrini-Green area. There's also a pretty good car chase scene at Navy Pier that shows what that venue looked like before it tourists and nacho wagons landed. The movie's opening scene -- with the protagonists hitching a ride to Lincoln Park Zoo on the back of a GM New Look CTA bus (the "Green Limousine" we called it back in the day) -- is priceless. You can also catch a glimpse of the long, low Montgomery Ward complex at Chicago Avenue and the River as the fellas ride.

The EL also plays an important role in the film. The roaring train appears a few times in the movie, and in one supremely inspired scene near the film's end, the passing train drowns out a character's anguished screams. Eric Monte's script provides some laughs, such as this scene in a movie theater -- although it looks to me like a school auditorium -- in which the Disciples and the Counts street gangs end up fighting each other while "Godzilla vs The Thing" plays:

Chicago did have a Cooley High, which sat on Division and Orleans until it was demolished in the 1980s. The city has changed since then. The Cabrini-Green "Red" buildings that figure so prominently in "Cooley High" are gone now, replaced by mixed-income housing under the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation. Those Series 6000 CTA train cars are now museum pieces. And we all know what happened to Navy Pier.

By the way, actor Corin Rogers -- who played Pooter in the film -- reminded me that he has a blog on Black Planet in which he discusses the movie, reminisces about the cast, etc. It's pretty good. Check it out.