Short Ends and Leader

Sisters Are (Finally) Doin' It For Themselves: 'Thelma and Louise' (Blu-ray)

Thelma and Louise (is) a film that uniquely captures the post '70s zeitgeist of women's issues in a way that few dissertations, let alone entertainments, can muster.

Thelma and Louise

Rated: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald
Extras: 9
Studio: MGM
Year: 1991
US date: 2011-02-08 (General release)
UK date: 2011-02-08 (General release)

In the end, it's all about where you cut. Indeed, you can't talk about the brilliant Thelma and Louise without discussing the fate of our fiery femme fatales. As scripted by eventual Oscar winner Callie Khouri, our bright and bubbly heroines, ultimately at wits end thanks to an oppressive, paternalistic justice system, were (SPOILER ALERT) meant to drive their old school convertible off the edge of the Grand Canyon, the final arc of the vehicle held for a single shocking moment before the film fades out. No crash. No comeuppance. No conclusion. Apparently, director Ridley Scott didn't complete agree with that ending (perhaps it was nothing more than studio pressure), and filmed an additional moment where the car continues down into the ravine as co-star Harvey Keitel stands near the edge, lamenting the ladies' forced fate.

BOO! As part of the exhilarating extras offered on the new Blu-ray release of the seminal 1991 film, we get a chance to see this misstep in all its dull witted male pattern wrongness. As an entity, as more than just a movie, Thelma and Louise is always trying to be pigeonholed by men unable to grasp its glorious girl power confines. Twenty years ago, pundits were practically beside themselves arguing over its merits - or lack thereof - suggesting that Scott and Khouri had collaborated on nothing more than the death of traditionalism and/or feminism. As outwardly stupid as that sentiment now seems, one thing is vitally clear upon a two decades in the making revisit. As much as Thelma and Louise seems to suggest a way out for actresses bogged down by bad romantic comedies and weepy dramas, an infamous estrogen-laced road film was not going to be the wake-up call Guyville as Tinseltown needed.

The story is quite simple. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a good timing goofball, married to a man (Christopher McDonald) who could teach chauvinistic pig rednecks and thing or two. She is BFF with Louise (Susan Sarandon), a hard living waitress with a sensitive boyfriend (Michael Madsen) who can't seem to make her 100% happy. The pair decide to take a much-deserved break from their meandering man-boys, heading out into the Arkansas wilderness for a little R and R. A mishap at a roadside bar leads to near rape and possible murder, the duo driving away instead of facing the obviously prejudiced male-dominated police department. While a detective named Hal Slocumb (Keitel) is sympathetic to their plight, the FBI continue to hound the wounded women like America's Most Wanted. As they try and make their way to Mexico, they run into all kinds of roadblocks, including financial, personal, and sexual, the latter in the personage of a hitchhiker named JD (Brad Pitt).

Eventually cornered, the girls take the "WTF?" way out, bonding in a beautiful, profound way before driving that fabled teal 1966 Thunderbird off the cliff. The eventual decision to hold the frame, to see the vehicle in free flight before allowing the image to flare and white out, stands as perhaps the most significant moment in the many stellar sequences this film has to offer. As an argument for Scott's viability outside genre, it's far more potent than American Gangster, Body of Lies, or the god awful A Good Year. In fact, in the twenty years since Thelma and Louise, the Alien ace has really never made a better, more brazen film. As for the stars, Davis and Sarandon shine, glowing with a kind of Earth mother madness that propels the viewer headlong into their insular universe of desperation and disrespect. Never once to we believe these women to be anything other than noble. Even within a pseudo-exploitative setting, they come across as champions.

That's the grace note of Thelma and Louise, a film that uniquely captures the post '70s zeitgeist of women's issues in a way that few dissertations, let alone entertainments, can muster. Aside from the novelty of seeing gals in the outlaw position, taking on the literal 'Man' with clearly defined objectives, the movie argues for the no longer novel idea of equality leveling the troubled playing field. While Keitel's character believes in the sexual assault aspect of the girl's story, and actually wants to help them, the rest of the paternalistic clan can't get beyond the criminal aftermath. It twists the whole victim/victimizer dynamic into an eccentric collection of pamphlet pages and dime store philosophies.

Sure, we laugh when Thelma and Louise shoot up a sexists trucker's cab, but the reaction reveals the still settled double standard that exists. The less than flattering term used - the CB reference "beaver" - is met with a mass destruction of everything the lout stands for - his business, his mode of transportation, his access to freedom. It's this element that is far more controversial than a pair of sisters pushing down the throttle and shuttling off this mortal coil. Thelma and Louise doesn't just want to break the glass ceiling - it wants to illustrate what such a tit-for-tat examining of parity means. If a man shot a woman for making unwanted advances, tore through the countryside on a series of seemingly innocuous crimes, and thwarted authority every step of the way, he'd be some kind of spree felon desperado. Here, our leads are heroines? Really?

It's that reflective mirror, that underlying theme of role reversal reciprocity that turns Thelma and Louise into a near masterpiece. Scott has such a flare for finding the right arid backdrop for his otherwise juicy byplay that he barely makes a misstep. He deserved an Oscar here, not for the mildly melodramatic dung of Gladiator. Similarly, Davis and Sarandon, originally accused of doing little except putting on a sassy Southern drawl, perfectly encompass the entirety of being a woman. They go from being helpless to harmful, compassionate to cold and calculated. When Pitt shows up as a piece of meat meant to undermine their growing closeness, the carnal desires felt repeat back on an industry that have treated such roadside pick-ups as slutty eye candy for far too long. Everything about this movie may read like gender turnabout, but in the end, there is nary a whiff of the accompanying fair play to be found.

It's is interesting to listen to Scott discuss his intent on the Blu-ray release. His commentary is in direct contrast to the grrrl power roar of the Khouri/David/Sarandon track. These ladies love revisiting the film and find surprises and unknown nuances along the way. While other items included here - a mild music video, a set of storyboards setting up the final chase, the real insight can be found in the aforementioned alternate ending and deleted/extended scenes. There, Scott establishes his behind the lens brilliance. Included, this material mars an otherwise outstanding effort. Removed, they highlight the skillful way Scott realized his various thematic aims. Add that to the visual expanse on display (Thelma and Louise looks jaw-dropping in 2.35:1 HD) and a Behind the Scenes Making-of, and you can sense the movie's majesty.

Of course, it could have all been for naught. Our heroines could have died in a fiery wreck, lamented by the only man in a man's world ready to give them a break. Even worse was another idea to have the pair magically cross the canyon and escape to the other side. Like the cause of women in the latter half of the 20th Century, the ambiguous nature of Thelma and Louise's ending argues for a similar situation within the subject matter's current social setting. There have been strides and setbacks, struggles and a continuing sentiment to push at any progress. Even today, the younger generation has traded the advances of the past for a Jersey Shore desire to be a professional drunken slag. As a cry for consideration, Thelma and Louise is magical. As a cautionary tale or primer, it's been more or less ignored...sadly.


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.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.