King Corn

Following the trails blazed by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, King Corn features two amiable guides in search of answers.

King Corn

Director: Aaron Woolf
Cast: Ian Cheney, Curtis Ellis
Distributor: Docurama
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Balcony Releasing
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-10-12 (Limited release)

"Everything on your plate is corn." This pronouncement by Professor Michael Pollan of the University of California more or less sums up the point of King Corn, an amiable documentary about corn's dominance in the U.S. economy. The not-quite-a-quest format is established in the first moments, as Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis scuffling along linoleum hallways, en route to someone's office. "When my best friend Curtis and I graduated from college," Ian's voiceover informs you, "We thought we were done with professors." But lo, they've decided to visit one, Steve Macko by name, head of the Macko Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory, in order to ask questions about life and death.

Specifically, Curtis explains, they've become worried that they're part of the first U.S. generation "at risk of having a shorter lifespan than our parents." Wait a beat: "And it was because of what we ate."

Following the trails blazed by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Ellis and Cheney mean to pursue this problem, using themselves as guides through the thicket of American agricultural and business practices, revealing that... it's all based on money. Along the way, they also find that the typical American diet is unhealthy. At least if you gauge typical by what they eat, indicated by a brief montage-and-scribbled-list of cinnamon rolls, pork sandwiches, fries, sloppy joes, sausage patties, and "juicy, creamy donuts." Gee, they marvel, this looks bad!

A few lab tests at Macko reveal that what they're eating has affected their bodily compositions, and moreover, that they are made of mostly corn. Given their preferences for meat and sugary products, this gives pause. And it also gives a point of departure for the documentary to follow. Per the currently popular "body adventure" format (see also: reality TV), Ellis and Cheney embark on a project that involves travel: they leave the East Coast for Iowa, and set up to plant corn on an acre of land for a year. This plan grants a neat month-by-month structure, markable on screen, as well as some excellent footage of the beautiful land out there, what with the seasons changing in poetic wide shots.

"For some reason," they muse, "We felt drawn to the Midwest," as the camera shows them gazing on giant trucks and ordering biscuits with gravy. Once ensconced in Greene, Iowa (pop. 1015), the boys solicit advice and on-camera expertise. They visit the Mitchell Corn Palace (all décor made of colored corn, with encouragement for free: "Everything starts out as a dream@" says the director as they leave). Then, having arrived in town in February -- whiteness as far as the eye can see -- they're informed, "On the modern farm, you don't have to wait for the snow to melt before you can get to work." And so the film launches into a kind of instructive mode, as Ian and Curtis learn what type of corn to plant, how to measure their acre, which machines to use, and when to do what. They also get some gently framed political background, concerning farm subsidies and the damage done in 1973 by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz's edict to mass produce via cost-saving technologies, thus sending small farmers into increasingly dire straits.

While they learn a few details about distant relatives (both coincidentally have great grandfathers or third cousins who farmed in Iowa), the film doesn’t grant this almost interesting storyline a chance to take off. Instead, the boys step to the background, their seemingly interchangeable and frankly bland affects giving way to the focus on Big Bad Corn.

This story has to do with engineering. "Industrialized corn," say Pollan, is all about yield. Designed now so plants grow closer together, the new corn is "kind of an urban creature, it lives in these cities of corn." All this yield, the boys discover, is not for direct human consumption, but more often, for feedlots. Cattle are increasingly not grazing their way into "fatted" states, but are instead locked into stalls and fed corn -- usually ethanol byproduct, a "flaky" substance that "the livestock likes," according to one feedlot manager. A trip to Bob Bledsoe's Bledsoe Cattle Company grants extended discussion of the industry. And a shot of cows chewing in their metal headlocks, ears tagged because all they mean in the world are the slabs they become, suggests the system's moral ambiguity, and a subsequent sequence points out the diseases they contract, due to the fact that they are "not meant" to eat only corn.

Corn's toxic effects extend beyond the cattle it helps to rush to market. The movie reveals as well the effects of corn syrup, which Ian and Curtis find in every item they check in one convenience store aisle. When they seek out the formula for high fructose corn syrup, they're told that no cameras are allowed in any plants: Audrae Erickson, spokesperson for the Corn Refiners Association, says, "It's as much about the security of the food as it is your personal safety," though neither point seems clear. (An insert of the boys nodding and looking perplexed on the other side of her desk supports our inclination to mistrust her.)

A super-effective sweetener, it's used in sodas, an easy target that takes multiple hits, especially when the boys travel to Brooklyn and ride with a cab driver. His life story -- not to mention those of his immediate family -- is shaped by sugar and corn syrup, as most everyone suffers from diabetes. A doctor explains that nearly one in eight New Yorkers has Type 2 diabetes, with no cure in sight, only management. Rethinking their year's work as producing "essentially an acre of sugar," Ellis and Cheney learn as well that "cost has a lot to do with what people buy," and the cheaper products tend to be made with lots of corn syrup. Corn's legacy stretches into our future, the film suggests, with no indication of a decrease in empire.


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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