Reviews

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

This feminist character study – in which we peel back the accumulated layers of silencing male coercive authority that have gathered like a veil around the 'secret' life, or lives, within – could have been thrilling.


The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Director: Rebecca Miller
Cast: Robin Wright, Maria Bello, Alan Arkin, Julianne Moore, Blake Lively, Wynona Ryder
Distributor: Maple Pictures
Studio: Screen Media Films
Release Date: 2010-03-02

When, at this year’s Oscars, Sean Penn mumbled nonsensically about not seeing “eye to eye” with the Academy, and about how he had neglected to acknowledge someone last year, and about how the Academy had failed to acknowledge that same person this year, he was referring to his ex-wife Robin Wright. At least, this is what I have to assume, since even if you slow down the tape of what he said, you’ll be hard-pressed to follow his train of thought.

Since he famously forgot to thank her in his own acceptance speech last year (they subsequently, if only coincidentally, broke up), and since the producers of this year’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee had been lobbying hard for a nomination for Wright’s performance in the lead role, it adds up. So, I mention all this just to clear things up. (The fact that The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was, apart from her typically excellent work, kind of crappy, notwithstanding.)

Rebecca Miller (who wrote and directed this adaptation of her own novel) offers a biography of Pippa Lee, a weird and gorgeous suburban girl whose obsession with her amphetamine-addicted mother (an appropriately manic Maria Bello) is matched only by her utter indifference to her father (which may explain why she marries an older man later on, but also might not). When Pippa’s relationship with her messy Mum leads to an inevitable confrontation in her teens (by which time she is played by a luminous Blake Lively), she runs away to her gay aunt’s bohemian apartment.

Once there, her aunt’s girlfriend (Julianne Moore) convinces her to model for semi-pornographic photographs, which she clearly enjoys. Innocence lost. Eventually, she finds herself adrift amid a drug-fueled boho art scene, at which point she becomes the mistress to a much older writer (Alan Arkin playing Alan Arkin again). They eventually marry, she cleans up, and the rest of the movie takes place 30 years later, after Arkin has been forced to move to a retirement community and Pippa has, at the age of 50, been compelled to come along.

This existential crisis – old before her time, trapped in a land of the dying – is underlined by her uncomfortable relationship with her children (her daughter seems to hate her, and her son talks to her like she’s a moron) and her unhappy role as the “perfect artist’s wife” (in the condescending words of one of Arkin’s colleagues). Sleepwalking through life (quite literally, we discover), Pippa Lee re-evaluates her priorities, her relationships, her history, her being.

This kind of feminist character study – in which we peel back the accumulated layers of silencing male coercive authority that have gathered like a veil around the “secret” life, or lives, within – can be thrilling. When we get underneath, however, the person revealed has to be, finally, interesting. In Pippa Lee, we are left with an impulse-driven, intellectually rambling woman who, were it not for the alchemy of Wright’s performance, would appear utterly tedious. Ultimately, no matter how extraordinary Robin Wright’s work – and it is classic, sophisticated, refined, splendid – there is no getting past the discovery that she isn’t actually all that worth getting to know, after all.

Anyway, for a film that really wants us to take it seriously, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee makes two catastrophic mistakes from which it can never recover. First, it relies on voice-over from Wright that is so cliché-driven – “I feel like my life is just beginning” she actually says as the film ends! – that we are basically unable to look up to her. Wecond, though the rest of the cast is impressive, it makes wide use of Keanu Reeves in a non-ironic role. Please.

4

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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