Roger Corman’s career in show business spans nearly 60 years, so audiences may initially wonder what might be left to say in a documentary about the exploitation master. Yet Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel offers a comprehensive, enlightening portrait of this most influential filmmaker-mogul. The doc offers a well-rounded treatise on Corman’s indelible influence, benefiting from a strong cast of talking head contributors and the ease with which Stapleton parallels his subject’s career with larger historical currents within the industry.
The movie employs a straightforward linear approach in charting Corman’s filmmaking life, which began when the Stanford engineering grad found work in 20th Century Fox’s mailroom, advanced to the position of story reader, and eventually quit to begin making pictures himself during the ’50s. It charts the highlights of Corman’s various periods, including the American International Pictures and New World Pictures eras, and offers a wealth of testimony from Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and others of the premier cinematic talents who got their starts with the B-movie maestro.
That Corman impacted so many famous careers is not a new revelation, but the spectacle of so much A-list talent (add Jonathan Demme and John Sayles to the ranks, among others) testifying to his pervasive influence drives the point home forcefully. When Nicholson chokes up talking about what Corman’s meant to his professional life, or Howard breaks into a childlike grin while he recalls directing Grand Theft Auto, the message comes alive in a unique, valuable way.
At the same time, the picture hinges on the compelling surprise revelation that Corman’s not the heady, mad-barking huckster one might have expected, but a kindly, conservative-dressing, old-fashioned elderly man. He waxes eloquently and speaks with such a strong, refined self-assuredness that you almost can’t believe that he helped dream up something like Night Call Nurses.
To the engaging mix, Stapleton adds period footage, choice clips from Corman’s highlights (among them House of Usher and Little Shop of Horrors), and lowlights and a strong sense of the ways this innovator revamped Hollywood filmmaking and its target audience before the studios caught on and outspent him.
The documentary meanders at times, as would any flick of this structurally cut-and-dry mold. There aren’t any meaty behind-the-scenes stories or tales of drug-fueled blow-ups, the stuff that really grabs one’s attention when it comes to these sorts of insider-driven enterprises. Corman’s World is the simply told story of a complex man or wildly contrasting tastes and images, who launched a multitude of amazing careers and changed his industry forever. And that’s more than sufficient.
The Upside: This is an insightful, engaging look at a cinematic legend.
The Downside: The film employs a cut-and-dry, straightforward structure that limits its effectiveness.
On the Side: Roger Corman is still going strong now, producing movies some 57 years after he started in the business. That’s amazing.