Reviews

Manic (2001)

Cynthia Fuchs

As Lyle first enters the ward, the film takes on a yellow cast, blurry and skittery under an Aphex Twin track.


Manic

Director: Jordan Melamed
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Cheadle, Michael Bacall, Zooey Deschanel, Cody Lightning, Elden Henson, Sara Rivas
Distributor: MGM
MPAA rating: R
Studio: IFC Films
First date: 2001
US DVD Release Date: 2004-02-02

"It's so addicting, to look into that lens and see it happening in that moment. It's more exciting than real life." Remembering the production of Manic for the DVD commentary track, director Jordan Melamed spends most of his time on the good stuff. While the budget was small and the schedule was tight, the movie was plainly a thrilling experience. There's nothing like the first time.

Shot in 22 days with only a couple of digital video cameras, Manic mostly takes up the perspective of Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), beginning on the day he is committed to a psychiatric facility. His recent assault on a classmate with a baseball bat has scared his mother, who seeks help from David Monroe (Don Cheadle), a compassionate staff psychologist wrestling with his own demons, as well as a group of troubled kids -- abused Kenny (Cody Lightning), suicidal Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), brutal Michael (Elden Henson), gothy Sara (Sara Rivas), and bipolar Chad (Michael Bacall, who also cowrote the script and speaks on the commentary track with Melamed) -- simultaneously joined together and split apart by their insistent, surly angst.

Though the plot recalls those of other films in the teen-psychiatric-patients subgenre (David and Lisa [1962], I Never Promised You a Rose Garden [1977]), it does bring to bear a certain energy. As Melamed puts it for the "Behind the Scenes" documentary on MGM's new DVD, "Manic is very contemporary and Manic is very raw. What I wanted to do was to create almost a documentary feel, to break the illusion of filmmaking and to say, 'These are real kids, living real lives.'" To that end, he says, "I guess you could say it's a Dogme film" (which he then defines for commentary track listeners), influenced by John Cassavetes. He and his performers made use of careful scripting, rehearsing, and improvising. According to Melamed, "The idea of the film was to try to get past whatever the filmmaking devices are, and actually see if we could put these people in this one location and make it very, very real, and let them become the characters." (The director notes the importance of preparation: "Improvisation for improvisation's sake, it sucks.")

Lyle's journey starts at the Northward Mental Institution, in the scrubby nowhere outside Los Angeles. It's as dismal a place as you can imagine, tiled and dank and horribly color-schemed. Melamed says they shot in an abandoned "adolescent ward, which is as ugly as a Burger King... This is what they do, this is how they try to make the kids feel good, with these bright colors, these horrible, ugly arches, and light filtering through in one place in the whole goddamn ward. It's incredibly depressing, but it is real."

As Lyle first enters the ward, the film takes on a yellow cast, blurry and skittery under an Aphex Twin track, emulating, as Melamed describes it, "what it looks like when you've been pumped up by halydol." Like his fellow victims of abandonment and abuse (by parents and attendants), Lyle is fearful, hostile, and abusive, constitutionally unable to make informed decisions. The endless nature of their struggle is informed, say both Melamud and Bacall, by Camus' essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," where "meaning is found in the struggle," rather than in its end (which never comes, at least not here).

The movie's most effective scenes are those that observe the kids from a distance, without heavy-handed emblems, like a crow on the basketball court, or worse, a patient who thinks he's a bird. (In one of the deleted scenes commentaries, Melamed discusses this guy, mostly cut from the film: "This is Bill Richert, the actor who plays Falstaff in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, among other things, who showed up on set in character, meaning that he was a bird... feathers in his hair and eggs spouting out of his mouth." Melamed admits, "I just could not direct him, I could not get him to be anything but a bird, to layer it with anything else in the film. Sorry, Bill.") Some of these scenes include "real kids," institutionalized kids who agreed to be in the movie. The "actor kids" also spend time in the rec room, alternately relaxed, raging, or dazed, like their meds make it hard for them to do more than watch tv. Lyle and Chad get the chance to self-medicate (they smoke a joint in the bathroom) and crank up the radio. Slamming around the room, they break stuff.

The kids' primary lesson is that they're on their own, that even the adults who mean well can't save them. No wise Whoopi Goldberg or malevolent Nurse Ratched here. Just people who make mistakes. Melamed says, "In most movies set in mental hospitals, some of the characters are banging their heads against the wall and are really violently insane. We tried really hard to blur that line between what it is to be sane and what it is to be crazy. And that line is really thin." The inclination is admirable, not only to make the kids sympathetic and recognizable, but also to challenge viewer presumptions about sanity.

Which brings us back to David, increasingly at a loss as to how to handle his charges -- even with burly security guys always lurking nearby -- much less help them. David's approaches to his patients are alternately conciliatory and confrontational: "How do you deal with your anger?", "You got work to do, Lyle," "Wherever you're going, you're still gonna be there," or even, "Tell me one thing right now that gives your life meaning." He's at a loss as often as the kids seem to be, trying to be a guide without pretending to be a savior.

David's complexity is a function of his vulnerability and frustration, indicated in a weird little montage sequence where his questions to patients sitting across his desk begin to turn into a series of similar exchanges, reflecting the distressing revolving-door effect of the all these kids in chaos: Lyle is replaced by Tracy is replaced by Chad is replaced by David himself in the patient's chair. He is them, or imagines himself as them, or is afraid they're him. All are searching for "meaning," but there's not much chance of finding it in an underfunded institution where "recreation" is one six-foot high basketball hoop.

The group discussions wander off into complaint sessions, and much as David tries to steer them toward "constructive" responses to one another's (rare) admissions, he can't get them to feel responsible, for each other or themselves. Inevitably, his own sense of responsibility is suffocating him. Manic is about learned behavior: Lyle's dad beat him down, but so has most every aspect of the culture around him, insisting that he's unworthy, dysfunctional, inferior. Kenny, only the most outrageous case, is a Native American kid whose father left whim with a medicine bag to ward off "evil bad things," and whose white stepfather is exactly that, an evil bad thing, so deranged that he sexually abuses the boy even when he's in the visiting room -- in front of David. That this stepfather is even allowed into the building by doctors and administrators (who apparently didn't do their homework) is alarming, at the least, but it does provide a staggering image of the damage that adults can do.

 

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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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