Reviews

Be True to Your School and to Yourself: 'Rushmore'

Wes Anderson's 1998 masterpiece is a sharply observed coming-of-age film, a hilarious fish-out-of-water farce, and a bittersweet tale of unrequited love.


Rushmore

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Shwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Year: 2011
Release date: 2011-11-22
Blume: What’s the secret, Max?

Max: I think you have to find something that you love to do and then do that for the rest of your life. For me, that’s going to Rushmore.

Reissued by Criterion in Blu-ray format, Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece, Rushmore excels on many levels. It’s a sharply observed coming-of-age film, a hilarious fish-out-of-water farce, and a bittersweet tale of unrequited love. Yet the film is more than the sum of its parts, loosely based on Anderson’s own adolescence as a budding playwright at an exclusive prep school.

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is an unflappable nerd with a knack for forging unlikely friendships, pulling people of all ages and classes into his zany orbit. He’s the president of Rushmore’s beekeeper club, editor of the school newspaper, wrestling team trainer and megaphone-wielding cheerleader.

Despite being a playwright who stages his own productions (via the Max Fischer Players), Max is flunking out of school:

Dr. Guggenheim: Max, we’re putting you on academic probation. If you flunk another class, you’ll have to leave Rushmore.

Max: If this means I have to stay on for a post-graduate year, then so be it.

Dr. Guggenheim: Rushmore doesn’t offer a post-graduate year.

Max: Well…we don’t offer a post-graduate year yet.

Adding to Max’s trouble is the lovely new teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Max’s friendship with a wealthy Rushmore parent, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), sets the stage for a particularly vicious yet comical love triangle.

Anderson’s virtuosity is easier to experience than describe. His collaboration with music director Mark Mothersbaugh produces several moments of cinematic grace. Within a plot framework of two men in love with an unattainable young woman, crucial emotional moments are scored with pop songs of the '60s and '70s. Anderson's pitch-perfect alchemy of cinematography and music creates a kaleidoscope of indelible images, and gives birth to Anderson's own auteur signature--an evocative, emotionally transformative cinematic vision.

After Max is expelled from Rushmore and enters public school, his world shifts into monochrome. The autumn colors of the Rushmore campus are replaced by the sepia tones of a public institution. This adolescent fall from grace, scored by the Rolling Stones “I Am Waiting” packs an emotional wallop.

With homespun sorcery, Anderson unreels these moments time and again at critical junctures in the film. Max’s rapprochement with Blume, who’s just been dumped by Rosemary, is scored with Cat Stevens’ “The Wind”. It’s another brilliant set piece and Murray has never been better in any role. His depiction of the emotionally devastated Blume rings true—you sense a man at the end of his tether.

Max: I thought I’d give you one of my Rushmore pins…would you like attendance or punctuality?

Blume: I’ll go with punctuality.

What’s really being offered here is renewed friendship, renewed trust. It’s a genuinely moving exchange between two quirky, kindred spirits.

Dave Kehr’s essay on the film describes Max as an American dreamer in the tradition of Twain’s Huck Finn. “Max is representative of all artists who use their work to arrange their world. His school play is his way of reintegrating a whole range of broken friendships and incidental enmities into a balanced community.”

Rushmore reminds us of the ache of the adolescent broken heart. With its backstory of Max’s early loss of his mother, everything that follows flows from that childhood trauma—from Max’s hopeless attraction to the older Rosemary to his desire to be a playwright, banging out play after play from an old typewriter that his mother gave him.

When Max finally comes to terms with both Rosemary and Blume, only then does he realize the potential for future happiness. Anderson reveals how love and loss defines us, how estrangement dehumanizes us, and how reconciliation and acceptance finally redeems us.

Henry James once defined art as ‘felt life’, and that’s exactly what Anderson achieves in Rushmore. His characters come vividly alive and that’s no small thing. We’re keenly aware of their emotional pain and the stakes involved. What begins as a coming-of-age comedy turns into something more important: a deep understanding of the human condition.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Rushmore includes a crystalline video transfer in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a clean 5.1 DTS audio track. Extras include cast auditions, director’s commentary, and the Max Fischer Players ‘adaptations’ of Armageddon,Out of Sight, and The Truman Show. Also included is Dave Kehr’s insightful essay, “The Play’s the Thing”.

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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