Reviews

Brüno

In Brüno, most of the stunts feel staged, more like The Hills than Cultural Learnings.


Brüno

Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale, Bono, Ron Paul
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-07-10 (General release)
UK date: 2009-07-10 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Brüno arrives in theaters buoyed by months of hype, from Sacha Baron Cohen's in-character talk show appearances to the MTV Movie Awards gimmick with Eminem. Viewers may hope to be surprised, as when they saw the boundaries-pushing Borat back in 2006. But really, all the anticipation has reduced any potential shock value in Brüno. We shouldn't be surprised that it doesn't repeat the effects of the first movie: it will leave no one appalled or cringing with second-hand embarrassment for unsuspecting interview subjects. But neither is it particularly revelatory or consistently funny.

The protagonist will be familiar to viewers of Da Ali G Show. Host of the TV show Funkyzeit, "gay Austrian fashionista" Brüno interviews designers while wearing outrageous outfits (including a ridiculous Velcro suit) and queries haute couture models on the rigors of walking ("You have to put first zee left foot and zen zee right and zen figger out, you know, vich goes next"). Successful, if not actually respected, Brüno means to make himself known -- a feat accomplished when he inadvertently torpedoes a Prada fashion show. Duly blacklisted, he moves with his devoted (and love-struck) assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), to Los Angeles to become "the biggest Austrian star since Hitler."

And so, like Borat, Brüno goes on a journey, during which he remains largely oblivious to his effects on a series of easy targets, ranging from Hollywood celebrities and Southerners to politicians and Christian ministers. But his film doesn't really work as sociopolitical satire. Part of the problem is that very few of the "real life" people seem fooled by Brüno's shtick. While Borat was produced multiple lawsuits by those who felt tricked into participating, most of Brüno's victims appear ready and willing to play along. Most of the stunts feel staged, more like The Hills than Cultural Learnings.

This can cause problems, as when Paula Abdul looks like the most refined person on set. Barely ruffled as she talks about her desire to "help people" while sitting on a Mexican gardener's back (one of Brüno's unconventional chairs), she exemplifies the movie's credibility gap. As she speeds away after being offered sushi served on a naked body, you suspect that behind the tinted windows of her car she's high-fiving her assistant.

A few bits seem more "real," and are as awkward as we've come to expect from Baron Cohen. Politician Ron Paul seems genuinely pissed off when Brüno tries to seduce him in hopes of getting famous through a sex-tape scandal (later he complains that he's such a loser, he can't even seduce "Rue Paul"). Trying to get kidnapped by a terrorist, he's run out of the village when he offers grooming advice for Bin Laden, saying he should "lose the beard" because it makes him look like "a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa." But even the so-called genuineness of this encounter was undermined when Baron Cohen appeared on David Letterman on 7 July and talked about how he set up his interview with the terrorist. When he asked a local contact about safety concerns, he was told, "Don't worry. Everybody loves you. We all love Da Ali G Show!"

There's less overt "love" on display in the movie for Brüno himself (whatever that "self" might be). Much has already been made about whether Brüno mocks or promotes homophobia. It's hard to argue for the former. The character is so over the top in his exaggerated dress and "gay" mannerisms as to be impossible to take seriously, even by his equally stereotypical targets. When a countrified martial arts instructor in a small town in Arkansas seems unfazed by teaching a pleather-clad man wielding multiple dildos, the gig is up. When Brüno strolls the sidewalks in Israel, done up in a hot-pantsed version of Hasidic Jew attire and is, again, run out of town, it's clear the offense is his mockery of their tradition, not that he's gay. Likewise, when he asks picketers waving "God Hates Fags" placards for help getting out of his S&M gear, the result is pretty much forgone.

The concern that Brüno is homophobic is less easy to diffuse. Its extremely graphic sex scenes between Brüno and his diminutive boyfriend Diesel (Clifford Bañagale) blatantly confront the viewer with outrageous stereotypes and longstanding anxieties about gay sex. But as these images are made for laughs, the effects are less obvious. One has to wonder what's at stake, and for whom.

3

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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