Reviews

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973)

Erich Kuersten

Brother Sun, Sister Moon transcends its Catholic specificity to find spiritual truth through humility.


Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Cast: Graham Faulkner, Judi Bowker, Alec Guiness
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Paramount
First date: 1973
US DVD Release Date: 2004-03-09

The release of Franco Zeffirelli's hippified take on the life of Saint Francis, 1973's Brother Sun, Sister Moon, coincides with the theatrical release of The Passion of the Christ. While the latter is a punishing, self-important litany of torture, the other transcends its Catholic specificity to find spiritual truth through humility.

More specifically, Zeffirelli's film links Christianity with the counter-cultural '60s. The movie's humane take on brotherly love, so generous that it even forgives the Catholic Church, ends with the meeting of Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness) and Francesco (Graham Faulkner), wherein the Pope blesses Francesco and supplicates himself before him.

The film opens with Francesco returned from fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia, with the medieval equivalent of shellshock. He lies on his bed attended by nurses and hallucinating vividly, recalling the events of his youth leading up to the horrors of battle. Before going off to fight Perugia Francis was a boisterous, arrogant youth, much enamored of his textile manufacturing father Pietro (Lee Montague) and Mother (Valentina Cortese) and sharing their passion for wealth and prestige. He and his family see the ensuing war mainly as a chance for profit via loot. We see all this through Francesco's fevered flashbacks, and when he finally wakes, his old life has been washed away. He's open to the songs of birds and the splendor of flora. His father's obsession with gold now fills him with revulsion. He even freaks out in church, where the poor are made to stand in the back while he and other wealthy sorts sit in the front.

Eventually, Francesco casts off Pietro's job offers, throwing the old man's textiles out the window and heading, naked and longhaired, into the wilderness. Here he will start his own poor-friendly church, replete with a beautiful flower child, Claire (Judi Bowker) and a gathering of bearded followers. The local bishop is upset, especially when all but the richest members of his flock are soon attending Francesco's church instead of his. And so he sends soldiers to burn his humble rival's church to the ground, killing one of Francesco's followers in the process.

The analogies to the Vietnam era and the anti-war movement are all too apparent. Zeffirelli's previous film, Romeo and Juliet (1968) was canonized as a counter-cultural touchstone three years previously: the tale of two attractive young hedonists being driven to suicide by their war-crazed elders was a perfect metaphor for the times. The story of Saint Francis -- paralleling those of Vietnam vets turned war protesters (à la Ron Kovic, whose autobiography was the basis for Oliver Stone's 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July) -- must have seemed a perfect follow-up. Francis' bedridden hallucinations resemble a heavy acid trip, and his rejection of his father's plastic fantastic Madison Avenue gig for a communal church evokes images of so many young panhandlers in the Haight.

Fusing the classical allure of Romeo and Juliet with the righteous resistance of psychedelia, Brother Sun, Sister Moon might be grouped with U.S. films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy (both 1969). At the same time, Brother Sun also calls up Renaissance art, in lovingly photographed images of Assisi and the Vatican.

The film goes so far as to include a selection of syrupy, rather ancient-sounding songs by British folkie Donovan. Using period instruments, Donovan's performances turn the film at times into one of those early '70s romantic odysseys, with a pair of barefoot young lovers skipping through the flowers, during Francesco's "conversion." Donovan sings, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon / I seldom see you, I can't hear your tune / Preoccupied with selfish misery / Brother Wind and Sister Air / Open my eyes to visions pure and fair, that I might see the glories around me." Such lyrics sum up the movie's spiritual message, more or less an echo of Jesus' famous edict in the Book of Thomas: "The kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it."

The film literalizes (and celebrates) this manifestation of God's spirit in "nature," condemning institutional indirection along the way. When Francesco climbs onto the roof outside his window to follow a bird, then goes skipping through the meadows, alive to all of nature and Donovan, our first instinct may be to laugh. But mock this sweet and noble sentiment at your own peril. That Francesco's denunciation of worldly possessions and unabashed love of love and faith seem corny should make us as ashamed as Pope Innocent at film's end, when he bends to kiss Francesco's dirty bare feet. Such love is what is best in man, or so Zeffirelli reminds us.

With its brilliant cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri and cast of pretty faces, the film is like a painting come to life. Brother Sun comes between two of Zeffirelli's masterpieces, Romeo and Juliet and the six-hour TV miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In all these films, Zeffirelli depicts old stories with a modern sensibility and timeless sense of spirituality. One of the important breakthroughs of the flower power movement was perhaps the infusion of eastern spiritual thought into the west, and in both Brother Sun and his Jesus Zeffirelli finds the universal thread of spiritual thought that connects both east and west: the desire for transcendence through selflessness and love. Those who cry "heresy" or "corny" might think of the old Zen koan where the Master points at the moon, but the students only look at his finger.

Zeffirelli points our eyes directly at the beauty of the moon, while Catholic dogma (not unlike Gibson's new film) screams for attention, accusing all the world of heresy if it dares to look away, and the jaded hipsters out there that can't get past that corny Donovan score miss a profound message that just might make them appreciate the sun, moon, birds, and flowers as the wonders they are.

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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