"Overrated" vs. "Misunderstood"

Can something considered a masterpiece be overrated, or is such a reaction merely the height of crass critical insularity?

A debate has been raging on the Internet over the past two weeks, a war of words between a certain select group of critics and their equally astute peers. It all centers around a recent poll by Indiewire (as part of their Criticwire brand) dealing with, and we quote, "Overrated Masterpieces." Now, if that tag isn't confusing enough (if something is considered a "masterpiece," can it really be "overrated?"), many of the answers were. As pointed out by Calum Marsh in his response "The Movie Isn't 'Overrated,' You’re Just Lazy" several of the opinions offered were nothing more than dismissals and assertions. While the framework of the piece may have allowed for such shortcuts, Marsh argues that many of the conclusions can be summed up in the following way: I'm right, everyone else is wrong.

All of which leads to a very interesting point, aesthetically speaking. Is something you don't get, or fail to find as artistically compelling, really 'overrated,' or as Marsh prefers to put it, 'misunderstood?' Dealing with the logical fallacy of some of the responses (the whole "one opinion vs. decades of consensus" thing) he goes on to say that:

"To use the word “overrated”—as opposed to, say, mounting a considered argument against a film that happens to be well-liked—is to orient oneself deliberately in reaction to something perceived as somehow disingenuous, which has the simultaneous effect of both handily erasing mountains of discourse without having to properly engage in the discussion and, more gallingly, conferring upon the wielder of the word an unwarranted sense of superiority. “Overrated”, simply put, is a term of smugness, of such arrogance in distaste that the prospect of appreciation seems laughable."

This goes to the very heart of the dispute. As with any argument based on a resolution, the wording is everything. Had Indiewire phrased their inquiry in the following manner, "Masterpieces Which You Feel Don't Deserve Said Label" or "Overrated Films that Others Consider Masterpieces," you might have some contrary wiggle room. Instead, the use of a simplistic "Overrated Masterpieces" tag allows for something akin to, as Mr. Marsh infers, self congratulation. Such blatant dismissal, without the least bit of buffering analysis (though, granted, some did offer more than a mere "meh"), is indeed, lazy.

It's reminiscent of the firestorm that arose when the British Film Institute released their Sight and Sound list of the Greatest Films of All Time. After decades sitting at the top of the heap, Citizen Kane was dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and around the critical community, you could hear the mutual "harrumph." Many chalked it up to an influx of new voices, those with a perspective that can't reach back as far as Welles' early '40s classic. Others felt vindication, relieved that a movie unfairly made the champion of all others was finally taken down a notch. While the Top Tens, both general and filmmaker, generated a great deal of buzz, including the standard slams over inclusion/exclusion, few found folly with the compendium in general. While they may have disagreed, there was little disrespect.

Apparently, it was all being saved up for this specific Indiewire poll. As Mr. Marsh points out, there are some head scratchers (La Dolce Vita, 8&1/2) as well as some questionable references (Star Wars? The Sound of Music? We Need to Talk About Kevin? Masterpieces?). Drew Hunt, of the Chicago Reader, went on a spree, including such noted works as Chinatown, Touch of Evil, The Deer Hunter, The Graduate, and Apocalypse Now, while John Lichman took down Taxi Driver. On the other hand, Jordan Raup of The Film Stage seemed to "get" the question, and pointed to Braveheart and Gladiator as two 'highly regarded' films that left him more than a bit cold.

Of course, context is everything. With the Internet allowing for a great deal of cinematic specialization, a critic no longer has to have a ready knowledge of the entirety of the medium. Instead, they can focus solely on horror, or the fascinating film noir of the '40s and '50s. While home video and cable have made access to the past even easier, it has also created an obsessive culture which suggest a soapbox without any specific limits. As we have said before, one can name any movie from the last few years and there is probably a website out there dissecting it and championing its inclusion in the pantheon of favored films. Heck, just this past week, Room 237 offered up a collection of said thoughts, all centered around some "unique" theories on the true meaning of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining.

It's the bigger picture here that's more disconcerting. While one doesn't have to "love" any of the movies that are considered classics (entertainment is personal, as is the reaction to and opinion of same), to argue that they are overrated means, as Mr. Marsh points out, a knowledge above and beyond those who've fawned over the film for years. It's reminiscent of a discussion that circled around the mid-'90s in reference to what is, arguably, the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time, the Beatles. While N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys were leading the whole cyclical teen idol thing, those in the media were arguing that John, Paul, George and Ringo were the ultimate example of same. Really? A band that literally changed both the musical and cultural landscape were in the same category as premade musical groups manufactured out of Tiger Beat focus group results?

On the other hand, maybe these contrarians are right. After all, we saw a shift in Sight and Sound after decades of dedicated stagnation. Maybe it's all part of what we said before, the democratization of the critic game. As the likeminded gravitate toward their own aesthetic kind and leading voices -- the Eberts and the Scotts -- slowly fade into the old school woodwork, a new generation (not that everyone in the Indiewire poll represents this group)could be showing us the future. And remember, they have more access to movie than any one of their prominent predecessors. On the other hand, such insularity does breed one thing, a certain narrowmindedness that can't be ignored. "Overrated" may not have been the right word, but "lazy" does seem to fit rather well.

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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