Clueless: Whatever! Edition (1995)

Cynthia Fuchs

When I first read I just thought, this is funny. This was by the lady who directed Fast Times and apparently they had the girl from the Aerosmith videos in it.

Clueless: Whatever! Edition

Director: Amy Heckerling
Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Stacy Dash, Brittany Murphy, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Paul Rudd, Wallace Shawn, Dan Hedaya
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 1995
US DVD Release Date: 2005-08-30
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Why am I even listening to you to begin with? You're a virgin who can't drive.
-- Tai (Brittany Murphy), Clueless

I can see why Amy likes working with teenagers, because they're not jaded yet.
-- Twink Caplan, Associate Producer, "Class of '95"

"When I first read I just thought, this is funny. This was by the lady who directed Fast Times and apparently they had the girl from the Aerosmith videos in it. That's all we knew." So remembers Breckin Meyer, looking not very different than he did when he appeared in Clueless, the 10-year-old movie he's talking about.

At first it's hard to believe that Clueless is that old. But then you see it again on Paramount's new Whatever! edition, and you see that it is indeed that old. Which is not to say it's not still adorable and clever and joyous, only that its age shows a little. Like it does for other classics. The DVD, unfortunately, doesn't offer so much to exploit its wonders, a set of short featurettes with returning cast and crew opining on what it was like back then. These include: "Class of '95" (a look -back by cast and crew, prompting the question: why is Murphy a movie star and Silverstone not?), "Creative Writing" (Heckerling and her team discuss the project's origins and scripting from Austen), "Fashion 101" (focusing on costume designer Mona May), "Language Arts" (about the slang), "Suck 'N Blow: A Tutorial" (home/on-set movies about the techniques involved), and "Driver's Ed" (shooting the freeway driving scene, where Amy Heckerling's comment sums up: "I Love the freeway, I love the idea that, you know, if you're in that lane, you wind up there, and there's nothing you can do about it").

As most everyone who was sentient in 1995 will remember, Cher was Alicia Silverstone's moment. In Clueless, she was the ultimate Betty, Cher's term for perfect girl: beautiful, popular, and repulsively rich, a Beverly Hills high school student who drives a fabulous white jeep even though she only has a learner's permit, who shops to feel "in control" (with her lawyer dad's credit cards). Named after a certain infamous infomercialist, she chats on her cellular phone, hangs out with only the cool people, and appreciates the existential depths of Ren and Stimpy. She spends her time fussing over her friends' dating and watching her father's health (he's played by Dan Hedaya, of whose casting Heckerling says, "I wanted to cast somebody who would normally be cast as a hitman in movies and then play him as the father of a teenage girl, so other people would be afraid of him, but to her, he's just daddy." "I wanted him to diet and thinking up ways to "do good stuff" for other people, Cher says. Like, she's the Anti-Heather.

In Clueless, Silverstone reveals a comic flexibility and apparent sense of irony, though it's hard to tell "at this age" where her moves between ingenuous and cunning, childish and sultry might be coming from. She was "Legally Blonde" long before Reese Witherspoon. She also seems to have a flair for slapstick and an expressive face, you know, like an actor. The film doesn't take you anywhere you haven't been before, especially if you watched the first few years of 90210, before they went off to college and became socially conscious. But it revisits this territory with an engaging mixture of affection and acerbic awareness. It's got a readymade-hits soundtrack (including songs by Lucious Jackson, Counting Crows, Jill Sobule, Coolio, Cracker). And it has the basic character types familiar from Fast Times, barely updated: the best friend (Stacey Dash), the awkward but quick-study newcomer (Brittany Murphy), the loader (dope-smoker) skateboarder (Breckin Meyer), the pretty, thud-headed stud (Jeremy Sisto), the fashion-conscious gay boy (Justin Walker), and the witty nerd who turns out to be the maximum love-object (Paul Rudd).

As this line-up suggests, there's not much going on here that's subversive or remarkable (except perhaps that it's so watchable, which it may have no business being). As "teen movies" go, Clueless is self-consciously lightweight, featuring no violence or generational battles (no mothers in sight, either). There's no class or money angst (Cher's large white house features "classic columns, dating back from 1978"), no racial conflicts (multiculti-ness is taken for granted: there's a student face in the crowd representing most every ethnicity), no sexual crises (except that Cher is a virgin, or as Dionne observes, "hymenally challenged," and so understandably concerned about her future). The world of the film is ideal, shimmering, stable. Cher believes she's completely clued in: she alternates between Jane Fonda or "Buns of Steel," watches The Real World (because it's so real), and negotiates for better grades with her terminally unhip teachers (Wallace Shawn teaches the debating class).

It's po-mo too, assuming its audience knows all about malls and, moreover, that life in this particular fast lane is both titillating and ridiculous, that reality -- what counts, fashion and morality options -- is a matter of media images. (This despite and because of producer Robert Lawrence's assertion that the young actors were cast for how "real'' they would be on screen. Yeah yeah. Next?)

Cher does go through a kind of development: initially superficial, overly concerned with her wardrobe (she uses a computer program to organize matching outfits from her mega-closet full of crazily colorful designer clothes) and her career as magnificent babe (she has no interest in those scrungy high school boys, the ones uniformed in baggy jeans and flannel shirts), she learns something about something resembling Values and Love, which translates to finding romance, predictably under her perfect nose. While she's busy orchestrating Tai's (Murphy) love life, she inadvertently stumbles upon her own (and the realization scene is appropriately excessive: a huge fountain lights up behind her like an oracle).

Cher's precocious and precious voice-over provides much of the film's humor. Her self-knowing yet guileless narration grants Clueless an approximated coherence and point of view. More to the point, articulates the joke for its in-the-know viewers, and doesn't much worry about the rest. Malls are real life. Like, get a clue.

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Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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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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