Raising Helen (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

'Raising Helen's a happy, peppy picture, with Kate Hudson and her legs,' says Garry Marshall.

Raising Helen

Director: Garry Marshall
Cast: Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hayden Panettiere, Helen Mirren, Sakina Jaffrey
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Touchstone
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2004-10-12
Sometimes they say, "Too many montages." Well, they can go make their own movies.
-- Garry Marshall, commentary track, Raising Helen

"Raising Helen's a happy, peppy picture, with Kate Hudson and her legs." As Garry Marshall watches Helen (Hudson) cross the frame at the start of his movie, he is as ebullient a commentator as one could hope to hear on a DVD audio track. Regaling story writer Beth Rigazio and screenplay writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, the director has them laughing and energized within minutes: you can imagine that his set is one fun time.

This commentary track is easily the DVD's most delightful extra (the others being bloopers, ho-hum deleted scenes, and the music video for Liz Phair's "Extraordinary," the film's designated "theme song"), offering father-figure Marshall the chance to encourage his writers to explain their thinking, while extolling the many virtues of his cast. This as they survey the opening scenes, which establish Helen's NYC glam existence in contrast to the simpler pleasures of her two happily married sisters, warm Lindsay (Felicity Huffman; Marshall, ever the shtickster, says, "She took the part because she thought it was interesting to do the beginning of a movie") and prissy Jenny (Joan Cusack).

As Helen simultaneously inspires awe (in her black mini-dress) and resentment (as she's headed off for some nightlife), Amiel notes that this first scene, all kids and parents and sofas and dancing to Devo in New Jersey -- were "tricky because we had to establish the family and their dynamic so quickly, and then... the end was near." Marshall adds, "You wanted to establish them so you'd know who they were if something happened to them but not so well that..." And here Rigazio picks up, "That you'd care..."

The rub is that Lindsay and her husband will die soon after, leaving fast-track sophisticate Helen with their three kids. Helen is a delightful girl, bubbly and vaguely naïve as Hudson tends to be in movies, an occasional smoke and enthusiastic partier, primarily dedicated to her career. A fast-tracking assistant to the head of a New York modeling agency (the painfully named Dominique [Helen Mirren, who, Marshall ba-dum-bumps, "took the role because she got to pick her own wig," as she's usually playing that dowdy detective on the "British series"]), Helen earns her clients' loyalty, her boss' trust, and a decent salary that pays for her sweet apartment.

Though she's happy, Helen is single, and that won't stand in a romantic comedy. And so, within a few minutes of all frothy introduction, she runs smack into a crisis: during a business lunch in a fancy restaurant, she gets a cell phone call and the camera pulls out and up: Lindsay and her husband have died in a car accident. Worse (or better, depending on how much slack you're willing to cut this flick), they've left their three kids -- 14-year-old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere, whom Amiel says is 13 "going on about 28") and little cuties Henry (Spencer Breslin) and Sarah (Abigail Breslin) -- not to the obvious choice (Jenny, who has "the mom haircut"), but to Helen. And with this abrupt change, Helen must be responsible, attend to the kids' schedules and meals, and, as Sarah reminds her, "check my nose boogies for infection."

Helen's initial efforts to maintain her previous life are as glib as her inheritance of the children. When a trip into Manhattan for pizza goes well, she decides she'll move everyone to live with her in Queens (this even though Jenny warns her that during this time of ostensible trauma, "the familiar is better than the hustle and bustle of the city"). Audrey is particularly pleased with the hustle and bustle, as she gets more chance to act out her upset (and she appears to be quite alone in this upset, very strangely). At her new Lutheran school, she hooks up with some slouchy sk8er bois who, in this film's utterly conventional language, signify Trouble.

As Helen must endure still more difficulty in order to be fully "raised" (and to extend the film to a feature running time) she must confront Dominique's sniffily dismissive contention, that "Fashion and family don't mix." Helen goes so far as to illustrate the dictum when she brings the kids along to a night time show, which leads directly to the unsurprising set piece spectacle of a pajama-ed Sarah causing chaos on a models' runway.

Dutifully hurt when she's fired, Helen finds employment elsewhere, far "beneath" her skills. With a new job as a receptionist for a car dealer (Hector Elizondo), Helen gets her adult-ish life together, while still struggling to shape her parental role. She's immediately good with the five-year-old Sarah and even finds a way to make nice with the preternaturally wise 10-year-old Henry, but her relationship with Audrey is increasingly troubled, as they share similar desires and lack of judgment. (When Audrey accuses her of not remembering what it's like to be a kid, Helen says that in fact she does, because it was "last week.")

This dysfunction stems from Helen's inability to set boundaries. When she comes home one evening to find a wild party in their apartment, she has no concept of how to get Audrey's surly classmates to leave. What to do, what to do? Call the baseball-bat-wielding neighbor lady, Nilma (Sakina Jaffrey), whose accented English and ready fury make her a tiresome cliché, a lesson in hysterical toughness for the wussy white girl.

As she works it out with the kids, Helen finds a way to have a relationship with their school principal, Pastor Dan (John Corbett, in essentially the same part he plays opposite Nia Vardalos or Hilary Duff, that is, infinitely patient with a sense of humor and sanity amid familial turmoil), this sort of romance being necessary in a romantic comedy, even if it does feel piled on top of the more interesting romance between Helen and the kids. (On Pastor Dan's introduction, Amiel muses that they considered making the love interest a contractor, but were convinced otherwise by the producers: "We went with it, and had to learn a lot about pastors.")

At the same time, Raising Helen makes gestures toward the other familial reconciliation, between Helen and Jenny. No surprise, they both harbor deep-seated resentments toward one another, compounded by their shared belief that Jenny "deserved" the children over Helen. Believing that she's the better parent, Jenny essentially waits for Helen to fail, then offers to take the kids, as if it's some sort of triumph for her over her sister. None of the seeming grown-ups takes responsibility for or actually counsels the children who are, by rights, traumatized and grieving over their parents' horribly sudden deaths. Not to mention that such distress is the premise for Helen's "personal growth" or a sugary romantic comedy. The inevitable happy ending allows Helen to "have it all," but you might still be worrying about those kids.

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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