Film

Sanctified: In Defense of Tyler Perry

Don't worry if you don't "get" Tyler Perry. You're probably not his intended audience, anyway. As a playwright, he strives to understand the urban experience, giving voice to those grossly underrepresented within the theatrical medium. As a filmmaker, however, he is more in touch with his pocket book than his 'people'. Everything he does on camera tends to go upscale, moving his African American characters into near fanciful realms of luxury and lifestyle. Still, the stories are the same, interpersonal topics like marriage and fidelity, parenting and childhood, relatives and family strife filling his scenes. Toss in a healthy dose of the Good Book, and some soul salvation, and you've got the makings of one of the most unusual phenomenons ever.

Trying to uncover why Perry is so popular is not all that difficult. The standard issue response is that he caters to a demographic previously disregarded. And when one looks back at how Hollywood treated individuals of color as recently as 40 years ago, he's clearly filling a massive niche. Others mention his drag act diva-ship via the madwoman matriarch character he created, Mabel "Madea" Simmons. She's Redd Foxx without the 'blue' moods. Some site a skillful balance between the clichéd and the creative, a gift for using old school melodramatics to touch upon updated, contemporary nerves. And then there are those who simply respond to his God is Great pronouncements. If popular culture is anything, it's afraid of religion. Perry embraces it fully, reflecting the beliefs and faith of the audience his efforts play to - and they love it.

With the latest big screen adaptation of one of his plays, Meet the Browns, set to open on 21 March, it may be time to dig deeper into the Perry mystique to try and ascertain his staying power. One things for certain - when he puts out cinematic versions of his previously road showed events, crowds clamor. Of the four films he's been involved in - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion, Daddy's Little Girls, and Why Did I Get Married? , only one has had less than impressive box office returns. Oddly enough, Girls was also the only one without a theatrical foundation. The rest of his oeuvre has grossed in excess of $100 million, and Browns is likely to continue that trend - especially since this movie marks the return of that all important insane woman, Madea.

Much has been made of Perry, a tall African American male playing an outsized female stereotype, a character noted for her pot smoking, gun toting, pop culture referencing rigors. Perry has said that Madea represents every strong black woman he ever grew up around, the care giving center of a father-less, often frightening urban environment. The jocular personality is merely part of the entertainment paradigm. But there is actually more to Madea than this. As a comic foil, she is the entertainment heart of many of Perry's plays. Even when she's not a part of the production, the author finds a funny business substitute (usually in the persona of Leroy Brown) to do the humor heavy lifting.

On the other hand, Madea is also the no nonsense voice of reason, a guide through many of life's more complicated and vexing issues. Certainly, some of her advice is outdated (beat your kids) and outrageous (the classic "hot grits on the stove" for a cheating man), but it plays directly into the audience's collective memory. No one has done a better job of filtering the African American experience of the last 50 years into a viable production package than Perry. Even others who've tried to mimic his approach - David E. Talbert, for example - seems stuck in a purely post-modern position. But Tyler Perry is old school without being ancient, effectively mixing the contemporary with the classic to create his universe.

It's something that plays directly into the spiritual element as well. Perry's scripts are like toe tapping tent revivals, action intermittently interrupted so that good time Gospel shout outs can be introduced. It's a very important part of their effectiveness, the pressure cooker conceit of all those pent up problems breaking free and into the hands of Christ. Perry hires wonderful vocalists, from David and Tamala Mann (better known as The Browns) to Cheryl Pepsi Riley and D'Atra Hicks, and they all know how to really sell a song. Yet it's odd that these mainstay moments are stripped from the cinematic versions of his work. Even when he casts noted superstars from the music biz - Janet Jackson, Jill Scott - to play certain roles, music is barely mentioned.

That's why many in the mainstream just don't "get" Perry. They see his undemanding storylines, his exaggerated characters, his good vs. evil straightforwardness, and conclude that there is nothing of substance present. They even mock his lack of context. But it's clear that audiences attending a Perry picture are already well versed in the foundation for the film. They don't need to see every song, recognize every character, or experience every subplot. As long as there are familiar elements from his celebrated stagings, the ticket sales will soar and the turnstiles will spin. It's not unlike making a cinematic version of a noted bestseller or beloved TV show - except Perry is much more entertaining.

Oddly enough, as of late, the author has been messing with the formula. While Madea's Family Reunion used most of the play's storyline, both Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns have been substantially altered. There are many explanations for such a stance. Part of the rationale is that Perry wants to give moviegoers a different experience than those familiar with the plays. There are delightful DVD versions of these efforts, after all. At the same time, much of the man's acclaim has come from familiarity. Though his TV sitcom, House of Payne, is a syndicated cable hit, Daddy's Little Girls barely grossed $31 million - almost $20 million less than any other of the films. Changing the premise seems antithetical to those intentions.

On the other hand, he's a name brand now, a noted Oprah approved member of the medium. He can do anything he wants and it literally brings out his devotees. Married was still a sizable hit, and another Madea outing (Goes to Jail) is in the works. Perry's latest play The Marriage Counselor, is making its church and congregation run and his last effort, What's Done in the Dark… has just landed on the digital format. It seems there's no stopping this creative powerhouse - and the profits can attest to his staying power. Yet one has to wonder if Perry can ever resolve the hominess of his theatrical works with the archness of his film. Madea might be a powerful iconic image, but could she work outside an already established story? Would a wholly original Perry film be seen as a stretch, or as something to be avoided until word of mouth strengthens the sense of success?

These are the pitfalls Meet the Browns faces when it opens nationwide this weekend. Most critics will not see it in advance (Lionsgate takes a genre-oriented horror-haters position when it comes to many of its previews) and there will be those who instantly dismiss anything with Perry's name attached no matter what the circumstances are. The few who see it will trot out the standard rejections, and race will get a minor airing along the way. Even that derogatory term 'chitlin' circuit' will show up now and again. But the fact remains that Tyler Perry is a solid, seasoned entertainer with enough invention and drive to keep going for years. He's patented. He's bonafide. He's sanctified. No one can take that away from him - not even his own sense of self. There will always be an underserved element of society looking for someone in sync with their views. For now, Tyler Perry is it, and that's all that matters.

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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