Reviews

The Blue Tooth Virgin

The Blue Tooth Virgin isn’t a bad movie, it's just wildly mediocre. It poses as a treatise on creative expression, the drives behind it, and the inherent pitfalls, but winds up being about whether or not to be honest with your friends.


The Blue Tooth Virgin

Director: Russell Brown
Cast: Bryce Johnson, Austin Peck, Karen Black, Tom Gilroy, Lauren Stamile, Roma Maffia, Amber Benson
Distributor: E1 Entertainment
Rated: R
Release Date: 2010-04-05

Writing is an egotistical exercise. At the heart of it is the belief that you have something worth saying, and that the people who read your words will be better off for having read them. Writing is also a search for approval, it screams, “Hey, look at me!” and it also involves a lot of fragile egos that need constant reassurance.

The Blue Tooth Virgin is a film that attempts to examine the root causes behind why people write. At least it aspires to. More than an exploration of why people put proverbial pen to paper, more than dealing with the question of why people write and the underlying psychological issues inherent in writing, this movie deals with what to do when a friend asks you to read his crappy screenplay.

If The Blue Tooth Virgin is to be believed, there are only two possible courses of action when your buddy hands you a manuscript. One, you can lie and say it’s great. Sure, your writer pal will feel good, gain all sorts of confidence, and head out into the harsh world of movie production bolstered and full of gumption, but it won’t help his script any. In the end some ruthless studio executive who doesn’t care about his feelings will most likely eviscerate his metaphorical baby in front of him. You could have prevented this needless carnage.

The second way to handle this is to be brutally honest. Tell him his screenplay sucks, that it is confusing, that the story is convoluted, that the characters don’t work, and that he should put it in a boat, light it on fire, and send it out to sea Viking funeral style. That path might scar him for life, crush his dreams, and lead to binge drinking. Also, it probably won’t help his screenplay, either.

In the world of The Blue Tooth Virgin these seem to be the only two options. Within this reality there is no way to be both critical and constructive at the same time. You can’t find a way to talk about what works well, and what still needs improvement. I realize that such a black and white approach lends itself more easily to conflict, which a movie needs, but this script completely ignores the wide array of grays that exist between the poles. In the real world there are many ways to give advice without being a dick about it. Sometimes it is tricky, but it is indeed possible.

This is the situation that David (Bryce Johnson), a successful magazine editor, finds himself in. His friend Sam (Austin Peck) is a struggling screen writer, who just finished a new project that he is excited about. The problem is, the script is awful, and David has to be the one to tell him, since no one else will. He is the one that is unable to find the middle ground between praise and condemnation.

There is another problem. Sam isn’t looking for honest criticism. He is whiney, obnoxious, and conceited, and is only fishing for praise. All he wants is for someone to tell him he’s great and stroke his ego. He essentially tells David what he wants to hear, and when David comes back with the opposite, a rift opens in their relationship.

When they are not together, the movie bounces back and forth between David and Sam’s perspectives. David is the more interesting of the two, and is nuanced and well rounded as a character, not to mention, he is far more relatable than his counterpart. Sam on the other hand is a one trick pony. He has a single note, the real writer, the authentic artist that no one understands, and he plays it to death. His false superiority pushes you away, and drains any possible sympathy you might feel for him. Eventually you’ll want to slap him silly. Bouncing back and forth between the two, the narrative never settles on one story or the other, and in the end, it doesn’t belong to anyone.

There are enormous gaps in the respective stories. David meets with his therapist, and Sam meets with Zena (Karen Black), a wonderfully loopy, new-age script consultant who serves the role of Sam’s de facto therapist. At the end of these respective scenes, the characters are right at the cusp of major, life-changing moments of decision, and you don’t see any of it. Instead, there is a scene at the end where the two estranged friends meet, and tell each other, and the audience, about these momentous moments of change.

There is more than enough time within the movie to deal with this action. The DVD box lists the run time at 85 minutes, but the final fade out comes at 78 minutes, and that includes the lengthy, animated opening credits sequence. Granted, the entire movie was shot in eight days, which is an impressive feat, but it feels like writer/director Russell Brown cheated. I won’t say what it is, but the very last moment is so completely contrived that it will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

For the most part the acting in The Blue Tooth Virgin is excellent. It's fun to watch Bryce Johnson as David try to mirror Sam’s enthusiasm, even though he doesn’t feel it. He is subtle and you can see the difference between his words and thoughts. Lauren Stamile is solid as Sam’s long suffering wife Rebecca, and the best humor of the movie comes from Tom Gilroy as Louis, David’s jaded neighbor.

Initially the scene with Karen Black bothered me, but as it progressed, as she came to dominate the scene, I got sucked in. hat was when I realized it had nothing to do with her. Her performance and character are great.

Austin Peck as Sam is the weak link in the cast. His actions are self-conscious and too overwrought to come across as real. Every little movement is overdramatized. While watching the movie I kept being reminded of soap operas, and sure enough, Peck comes from a soap opera background. (As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives.) You can get away with his exaggerated, melodramatic style when everyone around you is doing the same thing, but he sticks out like a sore thumb amidst this collection of delicate, naturalistic performances.

The DVD release includes the movie trailer, and an interview with Russell Brown, and Curtiss Clayton, moderated by Caveh Zahedi (who made a short film about taking mushrooms with Will Oldham). In the interview they pretty much just discuss their personal philosophies when it comes to giving people feedback. There is also a commentary track with Brown, Bryce Johnson, Karen Black, and editor Christopher Munch (there is a misprint on the box that lists Curtiss Clayton, the other editor, but it is actually Munch that appears on the commentary). It feels like Karen Black is moderating their discussion. She keeps the dialogue moving, asking questions when it stalls. Also, she has the most interesting things to say, which is too bad, because due to fluctuating sound quality, her voice is often indecipherable.

The Blue Tooth Virgin isn’t a bad movie, it is just wildly mediocre. "Unexceptional" feels like the right word. It wants to be something deeper than it is. It wants to be a treatise on creative expression, the drive behind it, and the pitfall it entails, but the film relies on characters tossing about endless writing clichés, and standard jabs about Hollywood not wanting real characters, and winds up being about whether to be honest or blunt with your friends.

Finally, the jaunty piano score gets fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying within 15-minutes. Be warned.

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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