Reviews

'Atlantic': A Nautical Dirge for a Dying Ocean

'Atlantic' is an urgent and visually moving lament against corporate privatization of the ocean.


Atlantic

Director: Risteard O’Domhnaill
Cast: Brendan Gleeson
Studio: Relation04 Media
US Release Date: 2016-03-01

Over the next few years, “end of days” style documentaries will become a fixture in the independent film community. In a world where fictional characters Dom Toretto and Baby Groot get all the production money for their development, these important accounts will necessarily be low budget; they will be stocked with foreboding statistics, interview clips, and a mixed bag of filmmaking which may veer toward inexpensive, visually unappealing cell phone footage. Of course, these films will be relevant, but salience alone is not enough to stick with an audience in an age when thousands of arguments stream across our TV and computer screens daily, one eclipsing the other.

Fortunately, Risteard O’Domhnail’s Atlantic -- a remarkable docudrama about corporate and government malfeasance responsible for destroying fishing communities across the Atlantic Ocean’s coastlines -- exemplifies an impeccably crafted style of documentary filmmaking which may resonate emotionally long after viewing it.

As narrated by Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, 2008) with a grandfatherly yet mournful tone, Atlantic-- , screened at the New York City Independent Film Festival -- is not so much an indictment against corporate and big government greed as a nautical dirge for a dying ocean. The sumptuous and beautifully composed cinematography complements the soulfulness of Gleeson’s narrative. Coastal towns in Ireland, Norway, and Newfoundland each have an ethereal quality. In Norway, the ocean is pearl blue and the coast is covered in a plume of white snow; as a fisherman discusses the happiness he feels when the landscape opens up on his way home, soft lingering waves enrich his ode. Watching wide-shots of pink and marmalade skies in Ireland is worth the price of admission.

Risteard O’Domhnaill

Of course, this level of cinematic beauty is not simply an aesthetic exercise. By paying each coastline the delicate visual treatment they deserve, Atlantic makes a quietly moving argument that profit-maximizing is an abhorrent excuse to rupture nature’s awesome beauty.

The interviews in Atlantic, however, are slightly less successful as they take a decidedly one-sided approach against oil drilling and factory fishing off the coast. This is not to say the interviewers’ holistic laments against short-run maximization efforts at the cost of their coastal livelihood is invalid. Nevertheless, skeptics may dismiss an approach absent any nuance or cost-benefit calculus (e.g., over population may require factory fishing boats and oil jobs) as baseless liberal sentimentalism.

On the other hand, simply showing the corporate scoundrelism with straightforward visuals is more than sufficient for Atlantic to make its point. In a number of scenes, large menacing factory ships, which swallow tons of fish seemingly 24 / 7, challenge the notion that ocean life can continue to be renewable. No directorial embellishment is required.

But despite this relatively minor criticism, Atlantic succeeds as a lament about fisherman forced to pay witness to what seems unimaginable: a corporate takeover of the Atlantic Ocean. This is a shocking concept, given the time-honored narratives which treat the ocean as a vast, unconquerable enigma associated with man’s total subservience to nature.

While perhaps a little heavy handed, the interviewees’ recordation of their astonishment at privatization of the ocean is nevertheless sincere and moving. A Norwegian trawler declares “madness” when he uses advanced auditory equipment to listen to oil riggers fire seismic air gun shots into the ocean as part of a surveying expedition. For a person intimately acquainted with the delicate ecology of ocean life, the sound of a seismic wave entering the ocean portends inevitable destruction. Is this man right to conclude that “the next generation will have to pay” for these corporations’ errors? At the very least his emotional take warrants large-scale notice and careful study.

Atlantic doesn't provide much hope that these measures will be accomplished anytime soon. An Irish fisherman is sanctioned for using lobster bait equipment which, incidentally, has the potential to catch Salmon in violation of a moratorium. Meanwhile, factory ships regularly skirt loosely enforced regulations against dumping several tons of inedible fish back into the Atlantic Ocean. If indeed the ocean is a sacred thing which must be preserved as perhaps our last food source decades down the line, this degree of hypocrisy cannot continue.

However, Atlantic does provide a small, necessary silver lining in its otherwise dark lament. In Norway, protests which started at Coastal towns and eventually spread to Oslo resulted in the Norwegian government’s issuance of a series of moratoriums against oil drilling along four ocean regions. An interviewee fancies that with each delay, more catastrophic long-term conditions correlated with oil drilling will be revealed to the voting public. Faceless corporations may not care about these matters. But voters can certainly press their representatives to help control destructive corporate interests.

Atlantic, which started off as a crowd-funding project and took five years to make, can certainly be considered a propulsive force toward environmental protectionism. Hopefully, it will receive mainstream distribution over the next several months. Hopefully, it will be followed by other visually powerful film documentaries on urgent environmental and economic issues such as this.

7

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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