The Reeler


October 26, 2006

Cowboys Up: New Doc Explores Decadent Miami Drug Trade

Tribeca hit Cocaine Cowboys returns to NYC with tales of excess, glamour and synthesizer fetishes

When asked if he's from Florida, Billy Corben politely but firmly offers a correction. "I'm from Miami, not Florida," he told The Reeler. The distinction, hard to grasp for an outsider, is part of what his new documentary Cocaine Cowboys addresses while telling the story of the so-called "cocaine wars" of the late '70s and '80s.

While not exactly celebratory, Cocaine Cowboys has to be the most non-judgmental movie about a hard drug made since coke's '70s heyday, when another Cocaine Cowboys was released, this one with a comically squabbling rock band doubling as coke mules while hanging out at Andy Warhol's house. Nowadays, anything harder than marijuana is portrayed on-screen as an inevitable downward spiral. Sidestepping issues of drug morality altogether, Corben focuses on the ingenious mechanics that got the powder into the country in the first place, Miami's subsequent affluence (the main port of call for import) amid a recession and the subsequent gang violence that, more than any of the drug's personally ruinous effects, finally sparked a community response.

Pieced together from hundreds of hours of archival footage -- much of it from local news broadcasts, with leisure-suited newscasters who, as Corben remarked, "look like Ron Burgundy" -- and interviews with the main players from both the criminal and legal sides, Cocaine Cowboys zips through a near-decade's worth of complicated history in just under two hours. And yet, though the frequently tangled gang loyalties and conflicts are cleanly delineated, it's hard not to feel uneasy, or even bored, after a while. Interviewees like Jon Roberts (logistical business coordinator) or Mickey Munday (transportation director and air pilot) recount, in monotonous detail, how much money they had (so much it had to be stored in garbage bags on lawns), how many people were killed (a lot) and so on until Scarface seems like a model of restraint.

On the other hand, that might be the point: Beyond the tales of problem-solving and violence is the story of an entire city capitalizing on an epidemic that ended up paying for a whole new skyline once the newly wealthy criminals discovered they had to invest their money somewhere. The whole thing plays like an example of capitalism at its finest.

Corben, who was born in 1978, remembers little of this himself. "What I remember most distinctly," he said, "was just the affluence of people in the community, of everybody growing up in a middle-class neighborhood and everybody working at the retail level. Everybody was doing very, very, very well. This was in the midst of nationwide recession. If you were a jeweler or a restaurant owner or a car dealer, you were in some way involved with cocaine money. And certainly if you're accepting a six-figure check from a Panamanian bank, or someone's paying you for a lavish dinner that they had, that they can afford to spend $15- or $20,000 on for just a roomful of people and they're paying in cash -- people knew what was going on."

That same affluence led to an unspoken complicity -- one that discouraged action until the cocaine dealers started killing each other in public. "People say, 'What was the Drug Enforcement Agency's response?'" Corben explained. "Well, they were focused on heroin; they were dealing with serious street drugs and people nodding off in doorways. With cocaine, it's rich people doing it at clubs, spending a lot of money. Everybody's doing it -- doctors, lawyers. Nobody thought it was doing any harm."

And so Miami became the city of cocaine -- and, in turn, the city of the classic television show Miami Vice. In fact, when asked if he had any memories of the cocaine boom, Cowboys' producer Alfred Spellman (pictured at left with Corben) simply replied, "I remember Miami Vice." When making the movie, Jan Hammer -- composer of the show's iconic theme -- was the first choice to do the score, and he responded with a thorough throw-back to his old meal ticket. "A lot of acts like to say, 'Oh, we don't like to go back, that's what I did before,'" Corben said. "But Jan released a two-disc set of his scores from Miami Vice [in 2002], and one of them was totally redone. He was still getting stacks of fan mail asking 'When are we ever going to get more?' I think he's cool about revisiting this era, and nobody does it better than him. Jan Hammer makes the best driving-at-night-in-Miami-with-the-top-down music."

With that score, Corben's Cocaine Cowboys is, oddly, more like the original show than Michael Mann's recent big-screen re-thinking. "I was disappointed," Corben said of it. "We waited a long time for a Miami Vice movie, and Universal spent like $200 million, and I still feel like I haven't gotten my Miami Vice movie yet." Anyone with that impression may feel like Corben's filled that void; Cocaine Cowboys certainly hearkens back to the days of flashy designer clothes and synthesizer fetishes. Those who couldn't see why that was such a good idea in the first place, however, may still be uninterested.

(Top photo of Jorge "Rivi" Ayala: rakontur)

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