Be Cool (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

Utterly out of place, the Rock is the most convincing character in sight.

Be Cool

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MGM
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-03-04
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The Rock can do no wrong. Whatever mayhem goes on around him, he sticks it. Whether riding camels with Michael Clarke Duncan, trading japes with Jon Stewart or scowling at the most annoying Seann William Scott, the Rock maintains a simultaneous dignity and self-conscious amusement not usually afforded cartoon characters, action stars, or professional wrestlers. The fact that he's in on the joke -- poking fun of his raised-eyebrow shtick, much-discussed desire to be a movie star, and fabled Samoan heritage -- only makes him more endearing.

Now the Rock is the coolest thing in Be Cool. As Elliot Wilhelm, a neatly Afro-ed, tight-pantsed, and quite queer aspiring actor, the former Dwayne Johnson steals every scene he's in. And that's no small feat, given all the huffing and puffing put on by his primary costar, Vince Vaughn, who plays a black-talking music "manager" named Raji. Decked out in his pimp hat and Gucci jackets, Raji thinks he's rolling, in part because he's got Elliot as friend/driver/muscle, and in part because he's holding the contract of a sweet little singer just waiting to become a superstar, Linda Moon (Christina Milian, whose own long-on-hold label issues might have something to do with the seeming heartfelt aspect of her performance).

Elliot first appears in Be Cool when Raji calls on him to lean on former shylock Chili Palmer (John Travolta), ostensible star of the show, so over his movie industry escapades in Get Shorty and convinced to try the music biz by buddy Tommy Athens (James Woods), tediously over-the-top and mercifully shot down by Russian mobsters within the sequel's first five minutes. Among his last words are urgent encouragement that Chili check out Linda's act, which he does, whereupon he meets Raj and Elliot. The fact that Elliot wants an audition -- any audition -- only makes the work of inveterate wheeler-dealer Chili that much easier (and the fact that his prepared piece is a "monologue" from Bring It On makes the movie almost worth sitting through). He convinces Linda and Elliot that he'll make them stars, and now all he has to do is convince Raj's boss, Nick (Harvey Keitel) to hand over the contract.

This being an Elmore Leonard caper, by way of antic director F. Gary Gray, the plot can hardly be straight-ahead. Instead, the Russians' disruptions (which include mistaken contract murders and toupees that don't fit) are disrupted by a crew of gangstas who call themselves the Dub MDs (get it?), produced by Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). He's got a big bully Suge thing going on, where the crass joke is how he hides his inclinations from his cute and trusting little daughter. Still, it's hard to imagine how anyone misses his crew -- a couple of them have arms like tree trunks, and one is the always flashy, loose-limbed bodyguard, Dabu (Andre Benjamin, who reveals comic talents; to his credit, he says he resisted the gangsta role for a minute, reporting that on set, "I hated my wardrobe coming to work every day, I really did").

Between Sin, Nick, and Chili, you might have three separate movies going on, as they're only thinly connected by their interest in the money to be made off Linda. Chili's the one who "believes in her," though, which translates into repeated scenes where she sings and the camera cuts to his beaming face. Whether this denotes Chili's remarkable taste, good intentions, or general Travolta-ness is unclear, but it does give him a chance to meet with Tommy's widow, the sensational Edie (Uma Thurman), now managing her husband's bankrupt label and once the laundress for Aerosmith. (This last leads to a devastating moment, though the film suggests it's a "great" one, where Milian shares the stage with Steven Tyler for "Cryin'" -- eeek.) The Edie-Chili partnership leads to some languid flirtation and we-love-ourselves dance floor steps, all part of the movie's uneven rhythms and haphazard-seeming plotting.

But if Be Cool isn't so tight as the original, it is occasionally entertaining (with the major exception of Vaughn's Jamie Kennedy/Vanilla Ice imitation, which is tired instantly). Chili still prides himself on his talent for making connections and manipulating everyone who comes within reach, and that's the Elmore Leonard styling, reflected as well in the film's basic components. Director Gray makes use of his music video day associations, via cameos (RZA, Fred Durst), and his good sport acquaintance Seth Green (from The Italian Job), who appears as a music video director, not incidentally, Gray's old gig (where he met Andre, making "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" and the superb "Ms. Jackson").

But for all the smug insiderness that makes Chili's world go round, it is the Rock who distracts from the formula most effectively. Silly and gauche, Elliot buys himself a new pair of powder-blue slacks at the Western-themed Boot Barn, where he spends inordinate time posing before the mirror and slapping himself on the ass and noting how terrific he looks ("Whoa! Whoa!" Scorchin'!"), all while a crusty cowboy looks on. Utterly out of place in this world of guys, he's the most convincing guy in sight.

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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