Film Review: Cocaine Cowboys (dir by Ulli Lommel)

Two million dollars worth of cocaine has gone missing in Long Island and Andy Warhol is on the case!

Believe it or not, that’s actually a fairly accurate summation of this 1979 film.  The film does feature a plot about several people looking for a lot of missing cocaine and Andy Warhol does play himself.  And Andy does discover what happened to the cocaine!  He even leaves behind some helpful Polaroids of the cocaine’s location, all of which he signs, “Good Luck, Andy!”

But, here’s the thing.  This is an 80 minutes film.  Though Andy appears at different moments throughout the film, he really only has less than 10 minutes of screentime.  He spends most of that time lurking around with a camera and muttering the occasional word of wisdom.

What’s goes on during the rest of the movie?  Not much.  While waiting to make it big with his band, Dustin (Tom Sullivan) has been making ends meet by smuggling cocaine.  Even though Dustin and the rest of the band want to get out of the drug business, their manager (Jack Palance … wait, Jack Palance!?) sets up one last score.  Unfortunately, while the cocaine is being flown out to Long Island, it falls out of the plane and lands in the water!  Uh-oh!  The drug dealers want their cocaine.  Jack Palance wants the cocaine.  The band wants to find the cocaine and they’re even willing to ride around to horses to look for it.  Some other people want the cocaine but I’m not sure who they were supposed to be.  Andy Warhol does not want the cocaine.  He just wants to talk about Interview Magazine and take pictures of the band.

Almost everyone wants to find the cocaine but, interestingly enough, they’re all pretty laid back about it.  Sure, the band might spend some time looking but they’re just as likely to be found performing a song.  To be honest, the band’s not that bad.  I went to the University of North Texas, which is famous for its music school, and the band definitely has a UNT sound to it.  They’re good without being so good that you’d ever expect them to become stars.  The band’s best song features Dustin going, “We’re cocaine cowboys,” over and over again.

According to The Warhol Diaries, the film’s star, Tom Sullivan, was a real-life drug dealer.  This movie was his attempt to recreate himself as both a film star and rock star.  It didn’t work.  This was Tom Sullivan’s only film credit and he died two years later, at the age of 23.

So, maybe you’re wondering how Jack Palance and Andy Warhol ended up in this obscure little film.  Well, I don’t know what Palance was doing there and, judging from his performance, he didn’t know either.  Warhol was in the film because 1) it was filmed at his Long Island estate and 2) he was friends with director Ulli Lommel.  Today, Lommel is best known for directing crappy true crime horror films but, at the start of his career, he was a protegé of both Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s and Andy Warhol’s.

(Lommel’s then-wife and financial backer, Suzanna Love, also appears in the film.  Horror fans will immediately recognize her from her starring turns in Lommel’s The Boogeyman and The Devonsville Terror.)

Particularly when compared to Ulli Lommel’s later, better-known films (like the unwatchable Curse of the Zodiac), Cocaine Cowboys isn’t that bad.  It’s pointless but it’s pointless by design.  Everyone in the film is so detached and out-of-it that the film becomes a portrait of ennui.  It’s a film that very much shows the influence of Fassbinder and Warhol, taking a popular genre — in this case, the drug rip-off film — and then tearing away at all of the artifice.  “Really?  The French Connection had a car chase?” the film seems to be saying, “Well, Cocaine Cowboys doesn’t have anything!  Just like real life.”

Of course, that’s not totally true.  Cocaine Cowboys does have something.  It has Andy Warhol solving a mystery and that’s got to be worth something.

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