En by i New York
“The Cool World” is a movie about gangs in Harlem, but about as far removed from “West Side Story” as it is possible to get. Instead of glamour, color and dancing, we get grit, misery and despair, but also the coolest soundtrack imaginable.
Apparently there was a trend in the beginning of the sixties, likely inspired by the French new wave, to make attempts at filming reality, or to make fiction films in an environment as real as possible. This is something that happened far from the big studios and often at a fraction of their budgets, which both gave the freedom to do things differently, but also made them technically inept. There are quite a few on them on the List and “The Cool World” is one such movie.
It was difficult to find much information about the movie, the Wikipedia page is very thin, so I do not know much of the background for the movie. My guess is that this was intended as a movie about growing up in Harlem, underprivileged, poor and exposed to all the rough sides of life. It is fiction, but it looks real. Filming is clearly on location and the actors do not seem like actors at all, but locals being more or less themselves. I have no way of knowing if that is the case, but I strongly suspects this is so.
We follow 15 year old Duke (Hampton Clanton), who is a petty thief with dreams of being a gang boss. He admires an older gangster called Priest (Carl Lee) and run some errands for him. At one point Priest asks Duke to keep his gun for him, while he is otherwise engaged. This fuels Duke’s dreams of reviving a gang, “Royal Pythons” and go after another gang, “The Wolves”. As he returns the gun his head is filled with thoughts of getting his own gun. He sets up the gang, get his own gang girl and prepare for the rumble.
As the rumble approaches however, he starts thinking that there is more to life than this. He sees what happens to junkies, his girl, LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez) makes him think of a different life and when Priest is killed he is seriously disturbed. Alas the rumble is unavoidable and ends poorly.
I was unable to find a proper copy of this movie. It is available on YouTube, but the quality is horrendous. Smeared pictures and poor sound quality combined with a very on-location feel makes it often difficult to figure out what is going on and understand the dialogue. That is a shame, really, because it is an interesting movie and I would love to watch a restored version.
While I often got lost in the actual story I had no problem following the scenery. The pictures from Harlem are filled with misery and poverty. There is a quiet despair in these pictures that sometimes explodes in violence or rage, but there is also defiance and an insistence on getting the best out of things. This is not just an exposé of the slum, but a movie that cares about the people it films. I have never been to Harlem. The few times I have been to New York I never ventured that far north, but somehow I would not be surprised if it did not look much different from this movie.
The real draw of “The Cool World” however is the soundtrack. This is the most awesome Dizzy Gillespie jazz soundtrack imaginable. I love this kind of music. It works perfectly with the scenery and the story, but it also works perfectly on its own. This is the kind of music I would put on for myself.
This is a depressing movie, and a very confusing one due to the poor quality, and I am not sure I would want to watch it again, but given a proper restoration this could be a highlight of 1963. If for no other reason than the music.