Reviews

Frida Kahlo / Jackson Pollock / Andy Warhol

Frida Kahlo, Le Due Frida (partial)

These three smartly reissued documentaries -- assembled by the German label Arthaus Musik -- contain many insights into the work and lives of these important 20th century art figures.

Frida Kahlo

DVD: Frida Kahlo
Director: Eila Hershon and Roberto Guerra
Distributor: Naxos
Year: 1982
Release Date: 2009-10-27

Jackson Pollock

DVD: Jackson Pollock
Director: Kim Evans
Distributor: Naxos
Year: 1987
Release Date: 2009-10-27

Andy Warhol: A Portrait of the Pop Art Idol

DVD: Andy Warhol
Director: Kim Evans
Distributor: Naxos
Year: 1987
US Release Date: 2009-10-27

Art does not appear from a vacuum, a fact underscored by viewing these unrelated films as a group. For example, we learn Jackson Pollock was influenced early on by the work of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo's husband. Andy Warhol, in turn, featured Pollock-like drips on his earliest soup can paintings, under the impression they were necessary to identify his work as "art". Warhol was relieved when the art dealer Ivan Karp suggested the drips could go. These three smartly reissued documentaries -- assembled by the German label Arthaus Musik -- contain many insights into the work and lives of these important 20th century art figures.

Frida Kahlo, made in 1982 (near the start of the artist's critical reevaluation), begins by stating that Kahlo painted some 70 self-portraits over the course of her career, and "they chart not only the changes in her face and feelings, but also the events in her life". The terrain of the film is thereby staked, as it is either a biography illustrated by self-portraits or an analysis of Kahlo's paintings contextualized by life history, depending on one's point of view. There's much sharp observation at play, whether framing details of her paintings or the accumulated objects scattered through the home Kahlo shared with Rivera, now a museum. Iconography informing Kahlo's work, specific to her Mexican heritage, is also highlighted, with appropriate location footage and the steady intonation of the narrator, the lone voice of the film.

While certain aspects of Kahlo's turbulent life seem downplayed (her radical politics, for example), the film succeeds with an unflinching and sensitive analysis of her work. While some viewers will find the interpretations at times heavy-handed or even questionable, others, particularly those less familiar with Kahlo's output, will appreciate the insights as an entry to at times obscure symbolism. The film is solid on the connections between Kahlo's paintings and her life situations. The art is featured prominently. Kahlo is quoted on her inclinations: "I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality… I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration."

A similar passion for self-expression informs the work at the center of Jackson Pollock. "A method of painting is a natural growth out of a need," we hear him say. "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means arriving at a statement". A key member of the mid-century Abstract Expressionists, Pollock was known for his large non-representational canvases -- amalgamations of lines, swirls, and drips –- as well as his equally outsized persona. Despite his success, Pollock's life, even as seen in this sympathetic 1987 portrayal made for Britain's South Bank Show, seems a bit of a muddle.

Of the three films, Jackson Pollock assumes a structure closest to a conventional public television documentary. The film begins by establishing Pollock at the height of his career -- living on Long Island amidst an extended community of hard-living artists -- before backtracking across his life's story. A case is made, through some clever dissolves, for a relationship between the western landscapes of Pollock's youth and his later huge paintings. This is potentially compelling, but is undercut by the artist's own insistence that his work was wholly an expression of his inner unconscious mind. We learn he was in analysis every year from 1937 until his death, age 44, in 1956.

Jackson Pollock, Number One (partial)

The notion that the car accident which took his life was a form of suicide ("suicide and alcoholism" are identified as attributes of the Abstract Expressionist movement), is presented both as a romantic end to Pollock's life, and also an ingredient to a "value structure" grading his work posthumously. Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, is credited for skillful manipulation of his estate, resulting in the rising monetary valuation of his work in the decades since.

The muddle with Pollock is that his technique, rather than "just a means", overwhelmed the output, in that the form was the content. As Elaine De Kooning points out in the film: "Definitely part of Jackson's success was his cowboy image. Throwing paint down and reckless and abandoned and so on." Footage of Pollock at work retains a sort of appealing romantic grace, the effect of which is not weakened even as we listen to a former neighbor describe the "bombed" artist weaving over a new work. There is an undeniable power and vitality to Pollock's great paintings, even as their scale is diminished via the television screen.

Rather than self-portraits, Andy Warhol painted soup cans and later, portraits of other people, usually complete strangers. Though not an intellectual artist, Warhol presented a conceptual art and practice worlds removed from the aesthetic concerns of Pollock's time, just a few short years earlier. Marcel Duchamp: "What is interesting about Warhol is not the retinal image of the man who paints 50 soup cans, but of the man who has the idea to paint 50 soup cans." Emile deAntonio: "Andy finally pulled the rug out from everybody by saying this thing is a thing we call a painting, and it makes no difference what it is and anybody can paint it. In fact, nobody has to paint it. My assistant can paint it."

Also initially created for the South Bank Show, Andy Warhol: A Portrait of the Pop Art Idol was filmed just a few months after Warhol's death in 1987. The documentary features a fascinating array of archival footage, film excerpts, and commentary from many of Warhol's closest friends and collaborators. A distinct visual style is achieved by positioning interview subjects low in the frame, with Warhol artworks hovering large in the background. Snappy montages punctuate the biographical and aesthetic conversation.

Andy Warhol, from Mao Tse Tung series (partial)

The documentary briefly traces Warhol's modest early life in Pittsburgh, where a talent for drawing would emerge and lead to a career as a commercial artist in Manhattan ("he became the best shoe drawer in New York"). As Warhol's ambitions take him into painting, and then further into the multi-media collaborations identified with the Factory, the assembled recollections retain a palpable excitement even two decades removed. Newsreel footage features Warhol's blank face and detached observations about his own work. The Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgewick, and a host of celebrities and hangers-on are seen cavorting in the Factory before Warhol's movie camera. His turn to making films is identified with a fascination for celebrity glamour, even as the subjects and subject matter appear to defy such notions.

There's a notable before/after break in Warhol's creative output after he was shot in 1968. The licentious atmosphere of the Factory at its peak fades, replaced by a more traditional business model as Warhol ventures into magazines, television, and commissioned portraits. Gerard Malanga suggests that "the people that Andy surrounded himself with in the latter part of his life were people that never really contributed anything to his art work…(earlier) he was involved with people who did contribute in a very major, substantial and viable way… and I think his art suffered... He became a bit of a court painter." But Warhol had also found, where Pollock couldn't, another direction to follow. The film finds time to present a healthy variety of opinions on these years, as well as continuing the presentation of a large collection of archival materials. Andy Warhol: A Portrait of the Pop Art Idol gets top marks for tracking down such a generous selection.

Each volume has a similar handsome design. The extras are modest but appropriate: a brief essay in an attendant booklet; a picture gallery featuring pertinent paintings and other visuals to complement the film; and three intriguing trailers highlighting other releases of what appears to be a rather extensive collection of art documentaries. Based on the films reviewed above, one might assume that high quality is uniform across the series, even as each title holds its own unique insights.

7

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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