In retrospect, it is hard to believe John G. Avildsen’s Lean on Me only did so-so box office business. Today, it feels like a classic late 1980s crowd-pleaser that should have heralded yet another comeback for its director. At least he directed two little films titled Rocky and The Karate Kid that became unambiguous hits. The Oscar-winning director’s life and career are chronicled in Derek Wayne Johnson’s John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.
Like many documentaries on filmmakers, Martin Scorsese duly appears in King, but he had a special connection to Avildsen. His first professional filmmaking gig was as an assistant on Avildsen’s 1964 short film, Smiles. It was also Roy Schieder’s first film as a lead, but Johnson neglects to mention the film featured a soundtrack by the great, stylistically indescribable multi-reed jazz musician, Jimmy Giuffre, with Barre Phillips on bass. Despite his studio hits and flops, Avildsen started out as an indie guy. Frankly, that is one of the reasons he was trusted to bring in smaller studio productions like Save the Tiger and, yes, Rocky on-time and within their budgets.
After the Academy Award success of both pictures (including his own Oscar for Rocky), Avildsen made a few bad choices. Due to arguments with producers, he was fired from Serpico and Saturday Night Fever. Just imagine what his reputation would be like if he had up-managed them better. He also decided to shoot his then girlfriend’s screenplay for Slow Dancing in the Big City instead of Rocky II. He only had himself to blame for that one.
Still, most of the surviving Rocky family came out Johnson to pay tribute to their friend and colleague, very definitely including Sylvester Stallone, as well as Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Burt Young, and composer Bill Conti. The Karate Kid team is also well represented not only by Ralph Macchio, but also the late great Jerry Weintraub, and our favorites, Tamlyn Tomita and Yuji Okumoto (it is worth noting Avildsen did not make the same mistake with the Karate Kid sequel). Sadly, Pat Morita is no longer with us, but you have to wonder why Elisabeth Shue was too busy to talk about her most successful movie ever. Even Martin Kove (the despicable Kreese) represents—and he has a good story to tell.
Unfortunately, Avildsen just passed away in June, which is not reflected in the film. In fact, many of the thesps he worked with take advantage of the opportunity to pitch Avildsen to the industry that decided he was “too difficult to work with.” Of course, Weintraub was no shrinking violet, but they seemed to get along just fine.
As a work of documentary cinema, King of Underdogs is nicely assembled and balanced in its presentation. Johnson obviously scored first-class access to Avildsen and most of his significant collaborators. It stirs up nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s, as well as regret his brand of filmmaking fell out of fashion in Hollywood (but not in the country at large). Recommended for film buffs and Rocky fans, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs launches today on digital VOD platforms, including iTunes.