Reviews

Music and Lyrics (2007)

HUGH GRANT stars as Alex Fletcher and DREW BARRYMORE stars as Sophie Fisher.

The Hugh Grant / Drew Barrymore comedy is all about the grand and giddy artifice of pop.


Music and Lyrics

Director: Marc Lawrence
Cast: Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Brad Garrett, Kristen Johnston, Haley Bennett, Aasif Mandvi, Campbell Scott
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-02-09
US Release Date: 2007-02-14 (General release)
Website
Trailer
All you do is show up, with your long hair and your breasts and make sure your cleavage is down to here, now, because, 2006, it's buck naked, Wednesdays.

-- Erykah Badu, "How to Create a Sexy Pop Star"

Alex (Hugh Grant) calls himself a "happy has-been." It's a joke, of sorts, though his interlocutors -- a crew of producers seeking his participation in a new reality TV show called Battle of the '80s Has-Beens -- don't get it. Alex appears mostly resigned to his lot, an erstwhile member of a band called Pop!, with requisite feathery hair, puffy shirts, and tight pants. Alex is best known for a certain dance move named the "hip pop," which regularly sent female fans a-swooning. You get a quick glimpse of the hip hop during the music video for "Pop Goes My Heart." The video opens Music and Lyrics, in which Alex suffers a heart attack when his girl dumps him. Rushed through hospital corridors, he dies on his gurney, only to rise up into some vague sort of heaven with the heartless girl, now all smiles and clutching his arm against a pretty, soft-lit landscape.

It's quite the brilliant start for a movie that's all about the grand and giddy artifice of pop. And it illustrates just why Alex is so acutely self-aware. Unable to escape just how silly he was, he's "happy" enough to play fairgrounds for now aging fans (who still know all his lyrics), offering up little bits of poppy elegance and glimpses of his hips in tight pants. Though he considers doing Battle for the chance to sing again on TV, he draws a line when he learns he's got to box an opponent to get the chance to do so.

Learning within minutes that Alex is funny, smart, self-deprecating, and retains a measure of integrity, you're inclined to like him. It helps that he's played by Grant, who has patented the part of the gracious, stammery, witty guy. And, as calculating and smug as Alex can be, he's also loyal and warm, especially when it comes to his manager and best friend, the pleasantly galumphy Chris (Brad Garrett). With all this going for him, you're apt to lament but also mostly forgive Alex's adherence to formula.

That would involve a love interest and several To start, he jumps at the chance to write a song for Cora (Haley Bennett), the current "biggest act in the universe," a Britney-esque blond with limited skills and a gargantuan sense of entitlement (when she offers to show party guest Alex the "roof," she explains to him that it's "upstairs"). No matter that she's an airhead; she's rich and inordinately powerful, and a go-ahead from Cora will change his life. He just wants another chance to write the perfect pop song, the sort of song he calls "dinner," compared to the many "deserts" he devised while composing for Pop!

SCOTT PORTER as Colin and HUGH GRANT
as Alex Fletcher

Trouble is, Alex is a composer, not a lyricist. This occasions his meet-cute. While working on a song with an "edgy," scruffy-faced, perennially angry lyricist for hire ("Get it up: I'm a bad hot witch!"), he's conveniently visited by a new "plant lady," Sophie (Drew Barrymore), who happens to be a "born" lyricist. You know this because she can't help but hum a few corrective, less corrosive lyrics when she hears Edgy Guy's proposal ("With some magic, I just might switch"). Alex is smitten. At least, he thinks he's found the ideal writing partner: "You are Cole Porter in panties," he rhapsodizes, before recalling that Porter had his own panties. To finish the song and win the chance to duet with Cora, he pursues sweet Sophie until she agrees: they work into wee hours, conjuring magic, munching snacks, and confessing secrets. He's even almost enchanted when they argue. When he suggests that the music is more important than the lyrics, Sophie makes the right assessment: "It's the combination of the two that's the magic," she smiles. Bing!

You know exactly where this so-very-charming professional relationship will go. Still, the movie persists with its insipid business, including helpfully feelings-exposing conversations between the couple-to-be and their seconds. Alex and Chris wonder at Sophie's "craziness," while she confides in her diehard Pop! fan older sister, Rhonda (Kristen Johnston). Sophie's initial skepticism about working with Alex has no chance against Rhonda's total worship of his youthful fluffiness. Still, much like Alex himself, Rhonda recognizes the limits of her 20-years-ago desires, and cautions her little sister to confirm that he has made a "passionate" commitment to her, something more mundane and earnest than the once titillating, now slightly creaky hip pop.

HUGH GRANT as Alex Fletcher and
HALEY BENNETT as Cora Corman

Alex finds a roundabout way to make such a declaration when he learns of Sophie's Own Past. Unlike Alex, she's unable to live side-by-side with her over-displayed former self, rather too conveniently appearing as a bestselling novel in a bookstore window. This jerry-rigged impediment to her future happiness with Alex incarnates, as she puts it, her knowledge of "what it's like to love with a shadow overhead." Written by her former creative writing professor and lover, Sloan (Campbell Scott), the novel paints Sophie as a no-talent, insidiously nutty schemer who stalked and seduced him to advance her career, blah blah blah. As she has absorbed this version of herself without much fight, when she and Alex spot Sloan in a restaurant (again, way too conveniently), she wilts. Though the encounter occasions Alex's moderately entertaining effort to defend her honor, the plot device is strained, with Scott -- like Grant and Barrymore -- playing the character he plays most often, in his case, a cad of the superficial sort.

All this business is absurd and predictable, as romantic comedies tend to be. Still, Music and Lyrics has Barrymore. Granted, Sophie has no "That's kicking your ass" moment, and her righteous determination to preserve her lyrics in the face of crass commercial interests is decidedly naïve (as Alex puts it, "In the end, it's all just business"). Worse, Cora is an increasingly feeble joke, what with her twin resolves to please her sexy-show-demanding fans and maintain her trendily "Middle Eastern" meditative persona (Sophie describes one egregious rehearsal as "That orgasm set to the Gandhi soundtrack"), embodying the film's primary critique of pop music as an industry without "passion" or intelligence. But Barrymore not only brings her own history (she has, uniquely, made Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, and Luke Wilson bearable romantic leads), but also makes Sophie's conventional earnestness into something else, part endearing and part self-knowing. This is Barrymore's burden, that she consistently resists generic business even as she makes it tolerable. The next step is to challenge the business outright.

5

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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