Short Ends and Leader

The Animal Inside: 'Raging Bull' (Blu-ray)

This is an epic tragedy, with a hateful anti-hero at the center whose flaw may be a total lack of redeeming social or personal value.


Raging Bull

Rated: R
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana
Extras: 9
Studio: MGM
Year: 1980
US date: 2011-01-11 (General release)
UK date: 2011-01-11 (General release)

It's an annual argument, an aesthetic splitting clash that pits two great films against each other in yet another pointless exercise in superiority. On the one side sits Robert Redford and his astonishingly good Ordinary People. As a study in suburban malaise, as a movie that dared turn a darkened light on the crumbling elements of the once mighty nuclear family, it became the Best Picture winner of 1980, additionally giving the former screen idol his one (and only) Oscar as best director.

And on the other side, of course, is Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese's blistering bio-pic of self destructive pugilist Jake LaMotta and his stupendous rise (and fall) in the world of professional boxing. To this day, many have felt the Academy got it wrong, kowtowing to a known Hollywood name while ignoring the far superior film and filmmaker. While one can argue the merits of both (unlike, say, Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan), what's clear is that both men made masterpieces, with Scorsese's monochrome opus a terrifying, timeless classic.

When we first meet LaMotta (Robert DeNiro, in a staggering physical transformation that earned him his own Oscar accolade), he is an overweight, middle-aged night club anomaly. Washed up, but never fully down for the count, he entertains former fans and the curious with bits of recitation and bad stand-up shtick. In flashback, we see where his once promising life went wrong, from his stubbornness to stay outside the local crime family influences in his sport to his horrific temper and tendency toward shocking physical abuse. In the ring, such a streak helps him win the Middleweight championship. Out of it, it destroys everything he (supposedly) loves.

This includes put upon brother Joey (an amazing Joe Pesci) and his seductive second wife Vikki (a stunning Cathy Moriarty). Always suspicious of those around him, Jake's personal paranoia fuels his eventual self-destruction and downfall. First, he drives away his sibling with an senseless accusation. Then he alienates his spouse as he spends more time wining and dining the cruel customers at his nightclub than trying to play family man. As his weight balloons and his options dry up, LaMotta becomes a casualty, a victim of his own insular idealism, a man coldcocked by his cruelty and his inability to see beyond himself.

Let's get the Oscar argument out of the way right up front. Raging Bull deserved to win every little gold statue is was nominated for. As Picture, it surpasses Ordinary People, if only by the smallest of margins. Scorsese deserved his directing honors, even if no one (even the DGA) thought so then. Pesci and Moriarty should have joined DeNiro in the acting acknowledgment, and the stunning cinematography and sound should have walked away with wins as well. As it stood, DeNiro and Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker (editor) got their communal consideration.

There are well reasoned answers to all the "whys", however. Redford was old school Hollywood. Scorsese was the brash New York post-modernist. People spoke to the still new issues of familial dysfunction fracturing the late '70s. Bull was a neo-neorealist biopic. Pesci and Moriarty were newcomers. So were winners Timothy Hutton and Mary Steenburgen - so it was a wash. As for director of photography Michael Chapman, he was the unfortunate bystander in a desire to champion a fallen film legend (Tess' Geoffrey Unsworth died before the ceremony).

So there were reasons why Raging Bull didn't walk away with an armload of awards - though none are that easy to swallow. From the moment we see its first black and white images, the movie makes its classical intentions known. This is an epic tragedy, with a hateful anti-hero at the center whose flaw may be a total lack of redeeming social or personal value. It's a tough sell, one made much easier by the passing of time and the tendency to excuse such seeming cinematic excesses. In 1980, such a heel was hard to swallow, no matter how much weight DeNiro lost or gained to realize his problematic portrait.

However, Raging Bull has a hidden moral compass that, at first, is not readily apparent. This movie is not out to pardon LaMotta, but paint him as the pathetic animal he really was. We are supposed to sympathize with his many missteps because he doesn't know any better, because his of limited avenues out of his stifling New York dead end. This is a man who makes a living as a contemporary gladiator, putting his body and humanity on the line for the sake of a criminally skimmed purse. There is frustration in LaMotta, a lack of escape that turns inward and angry. When he explodes - and it's often outside the ring - it's terrifying. This is someone with the capability of killing and yet not fully understanding why such a response is bad.

As he has done throughout most of his career, Scorsese glamorizes this galling male anomaly while simultaneously setting him within a world of warranted right and wrong. As in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino, he views crime and criminals as the ugly underneath are seemingly civilized social order. They are the mechanism that makes the cities vibrate, the coal inside the inferno of ethical disarray. Thanks to the clear visual cues of black and white, LaMotta is even further defined, the scarred jester of a sport celebrating the kind of sadism he would often bring home. The scenes inside the square circle are key, since they illustrate the artistry many find in the fight game. But it's in the living rooms and kitchens of the neighborhood where the real Jake comes out - and it's riveting to witness.

Indeed, all of DeNiro's scenes with Pesci are prophetic, arguing for a partnership and acting collaboration that would mark at least two of the artform's greatest efforts. Joey is not a doormat, though the pummeling he takes from his sibling would suggest otherwise. He is the pragmatic yin to LaMotta's hot tempered yang, an attempted voice of reason where few are listening to the words. Similarly, Moriarty does something very smart here. Knowing that Scorsese will shoot her as some manner of blond goddess, she trades on such visual cues, allowing Vikki to also be seen as the no nonsense local girl she is. While LaMotta may put her on a pedestal, she's more than happy to kick at him from such a perch.

The results radiate off the screen in such a way that few films can even fathom, let alone match. Scorsese's camera is everywhere - in lock-ups between fighters, in corners covered in blood. It swoops through the streets of New York like a resident, illustrating the aging beauty of the city's many traditional facades. He frames his actors in telling compositions, LaMotta almost always in the back, ready to move forward at the first sign of disrespect. He also experiments, using faked Super 8 footage to show the passage of time while interesting cutting and assemblage methods make the fighter's rise to the top all the more meaningful.

All of this is captured brilliantly in the new Blu-ray release from MGM and Fox. While a standard DVD version of the film is also available in the package, it is the high definition update that shows Scorsese's true talent. The visual element here is haunting, carrying powerful imagery put on screen even further. There is a timeless quality to the black and white work here, something that harkens back to an era when Hollywood enjoyed the stunning two sides contrasts more than the multi-tinged crassness of color. Along with a remastered soundtrack that allows more of the tricks in Raging Bull's polished presentation to stand out. Along with an equally enigmatic collection of added content (including three amazing commentaries, four new featurettes, and full length documentary), this is one of the best blu-ray offerings out there.

Naturally, none of this makes the 1981 losses any more tolerable. Watching both Raging Bull and Ordinary People some 30 years later reminds one that period and initial responses are more determinative than eventual consensus. Then, Scorsese's brutal vision was seen as just that - perhaps too harsh for words (or awards). Similarly, with Kramer vs. Kramer in its award winning rear view mirror (now there's a Best Picture winner wasted), the further dissolution of the American brood was destined to dig up some solid support. If the Academy ever releases the results of their voting, it would be curious to see how close these two films are. Both are very, very good. In the end, Raging Bull is better.

10

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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