Reviews

'The Perks of Being a Wallflower': High School Is Hard

The music cues are key throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted by director Stephen Chbosky from his own 1999 young adult novel. They define the kids as "alternative".


The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Erin Wilhelmi, Adam Hagenbuch, Nina Dobrev, Nicholas Braun, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Joan Cusack, Paul Rudd
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-21 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-10-03 (Regular release)
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Trailer

A million poppies is gonna make me sleep,

Just one rose and knows your name.

The fruit is rusting on the vine.

The fruit is calling from the trees.

-- Cracker, "Low"

"I was that weird kid who spent time in the hospital," offers Charlie (Logan Lerman) at the start of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Like many high schoolers, Charlie is worried about how his classmates see him. His worry is redoubled by the fact that he's also got a difficult past, spelled out in a series of increasingly clumsy flashbacks as well as his rather too helpful voiceover. He's less weird than he is familiar, that hyper-articulate, emotionally damaged, endearing, and charismatic aspiring writer kid.

As he begins high school following his unseen stint in the hospital, Charlie is fortunate to meet a few people, including his very encouraging English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), and a couple of especially wondrous seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie earns his invitation onto their "island of misfit toys" by making an effort to be nice to Patrick following a shop class showdown, during which the proudly gay Patrick tries to out-talk their macho teacher (Tom Savini, of all people). Where the other kids take the easy route, making fun of Patrick just as the teacher does, Charlie commends his rebellious performance.

It's handy that Charlie does so while they're sitting on the bleachers at a football game. That he goes to a football game at all has to do with his effort to please his predictably oblivious dad (Dylan McDermott), an effort premised on their mutual desire that Charlie "won't get bad again," which apparently means hallucinate and feel suicidal. (It's not clear why going to a football game seems like an alternate route, except that this is what kids do in high school movies, perhaps especially when their parents urge them to "move on.") The bleachers serve a more particular purpose, situating Charlie in a tight spot between Patrick and Sam, whereupon he can appreciate Patrick's wit and admire Sam's luminous beauty, misunderstand their relationship (and so not get that Patrick is secretly seeing a football player, Brad [Johnny Simmons]), and also fall in love with Sam, who loves the Smiths.

The music cues are key throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted by director Stephen Chbosky from his own 1999 young adult novel. They define the kids as "alternative," sometimes to each other and always to everyone else in school, and also establish a general time period, the late '80s to early '90s, when kids make each other mix-tapes (literal cassette tapes that include tracks by New Order, Sonic Youth, and Cocteau Twins) and put on exuberant shows at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror. That they don't know David Bowie is a bit of an unexplained anomaly, but it serves a story arc having to do with Charlie and company's desire to "be heroes." This arc sets Charlie, Patrick, and Sam -- as well as some other misfits who are crudely typed (a rich girl who steals jeans from stores, a bossy girl who loves movies, a tall usually stoned boy who lurks in party scene backgrounds) -- onto a regular trajectory toward self-understanding and, of course, understanding of each other.

This general time period raises other questions too, say, how is it that Charlie is released from the hospital without any sort of follow-up therapy (where's Judd Hirsch when you need him?). That time period might also help to frame the result of all that time the kids spend without adults, their ongoing self-therapizing (including their decisions to medicate Charlie with pot brownies and acid tabs) and maybe even the adults' sometimes stunning ineffectiveness. Apart from one-time playwright Mr. Anderson's post-class chats with Charlie, offering so-regular reading assignments (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye) and the unsurprising suggestion that Charlie "write one of them," the grownups barely speak, and tend to sit in the corners of frames as kids pass through.

The exception is Charlie's Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), who shows up in flashbacks with young Charlie, her death in a car accident a seeming mechanism for his "getting bad." Helen comes to visit while she's working out or getting out of an abusive relationship with a man, and the details are suitably vague, given Charlie's point of view. But the film sets up this incredibly complex relationship -- which is framed by Charlie's unclear relationships with his mostly mute parents, as well as his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) and her abusive boyfriend Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun), as well as his Penn State football star brother Chris (Zane Holtz) -- and then offers very little exploration of it. It's unclear whether this lack of detail has to do with Charlie's own inability to articulate his education -- despite being so chatty about so many other, less fraught, aspects of his experience -- or the movie's own resistance to thinking through the hard parts, how Helen or Patrick or Sam or Candace, for examples, not only fill out Charlie's helpfully weird supporting cast, but also live out their own experiences.

The lack of detail is of a piece with a raft of vague elements in Charlie's sphere, from Patrick to Sam, from classes other than English and shop to the revelation he feels at the homecoming dance, watching Sam dance with attractive, if clichéd, abandon, or the fear he feels during a battle in the cafeteria, when suddenly he's transformed into Jason Bourne, utterly brutal and conveniently blacked out.

Such gaps might make sense in another movie, one that might posed ongoing questions and doubts for Charlie. But this one is determined to resolve his issues, sending him into happy romance, love from his friends, and peace with his parents. We're mostly left to take all this on faith. At least we're left to believe this happens because he's met, at last, a doctor played by Joan Cusack. Really, all she has to do is show up.

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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