Producer/director/schlockmeister Roger Corman famously made over a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lost a dime, in part because he never financed stuff like “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.” That’s not to say this documentary about the maverick drive-in movie maven’s life is bad; on the contrary, it’s a breezy, informative ninety minutes with great archival footage and superb new interviews with Corman, his collaborators, and protégés. But c’mon: 90 minutes of people talking about some old guy who made a bunch of movies? That’s not the Corman way. Where’s the sex? Where’s the violence? Where’re the crazy, LSD-dropping hippie biker gangs?
Actually, all that stuff’s in there too, thanks to a heap of clips from Corman’s lengthy career. In a sneakily savvy way, director Alex Stapleton has structured “Corman’s World” to work like Corman movie: you come to satisfy your baser urges, and inadvertently learn a thing or two along the way. In between the shots of Pam Grier shooting her way out of a women’s prison and man-eating piranhas feasting on human flesh, there are legitimately powerful moments here about following your dreams and fighting for your independence.
The world that Corman built was more than the sum of the pictures he cranked out for American International Pictures and later his own New World and New Horizons Pictures. It was also a network of younger artists he mentored and encouraged, and who went on to reshape Hollywood in Corman’s DIY, youth-oriented image — guys like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Jack Nicholson, all of whom appear at length in the film to express their heartfelt admiration and appreciation for the man who gave them the first profesional jobs in the film business. The interview with Nicholson — who doesn’t sit down for this kind of thing very often, especially not in a way that’s this emotionally unguarded — is especially memorable.
If, like me, you already know a little about Corman — if you’ve read biographies about him like Beverly Gray’s “Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life,” for example — there won’t be a ton of surprises for you in “Corman’s World.” During a couple stretches, the film does feel the documentary version of an greatest hits CD: you get all the hits, but you don’t really have the chance to appreciate the deeper cuts. For that, you have to go to the albums — or, in this case, the movies. I’d recommend starting with “A Bucket of Blood,” the Corman-produced “Death Race 2000,” and a couple of the Poe adaptations like “The Tomb of Ligeia.”
Stapleton probably could have — and maybe should have — probed a little deeper into his subject’s life and motivations. Why, for example, did a guy fight so hard and so long for artistic freedom only to use it to release so much empty-headed schlock? Still, it’s nice to see the greatest hits, and to listen to Corman’s refined paternal baritone as he talks about his work. He even allows Stapleton to film him at work on the set of his latest project, the SyFy Channel’s “Dinoshark.” When he doesn’t like the way the young guys on the crew are doing something, he just steps in and does it himself. Now that’s the real Corman way.