Film

Spring Break: It's Miller Time!

With 300 current in heavy rotation on Cinemax and HBO, it's time for SE&L to take a few days off for Spring Break. In the meantime, enjoy this March 2007 piece on how Frank Miller's style could enliven other 'dead' genres.

He has the magic touch. Either that, or Hollywood is so bereft of visionaries that his ideas must be copied – in some cases, literally – in order for motion picture innovation to be captured. Of course, it's Frank Miller that everyone is talking about – again. The celebrated comic book artist first came to the attention of film fans when his Dark Knight take on Batman was reference over and over again as the inspiration for Tim Burton's reboot of the famed super hero. Then Robert Rodriguez did the illustrator one better, actually giving him a co-director credit on his all CGI take on the Sin City series. It was that unique post-modern noir, a combination of real live actors and carefully crafted digital backdrops that argued for Miller's arrival as a major influence in the world of cinema.

And now 300 seals the deal. The Zach Snyder epic, telling the tale of ancient Sparta's confrontation of overwhelming Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is currently confounding critics, already over $100 million in box office grosses in a little less than ten days. Some are calling the sword and sandal spectacle the dawn of a new age in filmmaking, while others laugh at its 'all style and no substance' approach. But with Rodriguez already planning a pair of City sequels and the industry buzzing over Snyder's boffo returns, one thing is for certain – just like The Matrix did back in 1999, Miller is destined to cast his impact over a decade or more of motion picture output. After all, you know the old Tinsel Town saying. Success doesn't breed contempt – success breeds competition.

So as producers and suits go scurrying through the Miller catalog, looking for untapped projects to greenlight, and as the copycats prepare their own interpretations of the artist's over the top style, we here at SE&L have a few suggests for genres that should be given the man's pen and ink invention. In each case, the motion picture category is either stagnant, or suffering from one of its usual bouts of overdone obviousness. But by splashing a little Miller into the mix – or, by implication, following the same stylized look of his 'graphic novels' – an aesthetic rebirth may actually be in order. Let's start with the most logical creative candidate:

The Horror Film:

Experts will argue that you don't need enigmatic visuals to sell scares or suspense. Indeed, music, plotting, characterization and careful direction are all one supposedly requires to make an effective thriller. But since those other elements are in short, or seemingly unavailable supply, there's got to be another way to reconfigure the fright film. Enter macabre ala Miller. Thanks to his exaggerated approach, especially when it comes to blood and guts, and the ability to ramp up violence until it reaches otherworldly proportions, your typical slasher storyline or undead drama would suddenly stand as a demented demonstration of fear. We've already seen other movies attempt such a shift. Ronny Yu's amazing Freddy vs. Jason managed to breath life into the two dying franchises by emphasizing their inherent brutality, filtering it through a Hong Kong action ideal. And for all their goofy Goth cheesiness, the Underworld films have tried to create an alternate universe where vacuous vampires battle Eurotrash werewolves in an ongoing war of wire-fu proportions.

But it is Christophe Ganz's astonishing Silent Hill that proves, positively, that Miller's optical opulence can carry the creepy for an entire horror film. Based on the noted videogame series, the French filmmaker (who made a name for himself with the remarkable Brotherhood of the Wolf) applied real world terrors to his supernatural setting, resulting in a startling vision of surreal, sinister despair. Several sequences in particular, as when air raid sirens sound off to warn of the coming "darkness", grab the viewer by the neck and refuse to let go. Now imagine such a situation augmented by Miller's attention to depth and detail. Sin City touches on such scary movie elements. It's clearly there when Mickey Rourke's Marv confronts Elijah Wood's serial killing cannibal Kevin. But that was part of an overall crime story, not a focused look at monsters and madmen. As a result, the application of Miller's technique to something as inherently horrifying as the zombie film, or something like the Hellraiser franchise, would be outstanding (just imagine a collaboration between the artist and Clive Barker on his Tortured Souls series. Ew!).

The Western:

It's a purely American genre, a cinematic classification that tends to wrap up the entire spectrum of morality and machismo in a few fiery gun battles. And yet the Western is deader than a Dodge City doornail, milked of all its meaning thanks to decades of overproduction and under-appreciation. Certainly, there have been attempts to revive the hoary old horse opera, wrapping it up in metaphysical meaning (Clint Eastwood's excellent Unforgiven) or post-millennial angst (Nick Cave's crafty The Proposition). But when it comes to straight ahead dynamics, when one looks to the black hat/white hat narratives that drove the early era of film, there is very little left of the West's fading sunsets. Instead, we prefer our cowboy conceits retrofitted into other genres – science fiction (Star Wars), crime drama (you name it!). But if Miller was brought in to enliven the oater, to add his idiosyncratic look to all the outlaw elements, something majestic might occur. Imagine the showdowns, gun barrels glistening in the burning midday sun, bullets flying across the horizon in specialized slow motion majesty. It's enough to get a film fan good and flustered.

The closest we've come, and indeed, a great place to start when considering this concept, is Sam Raimi's pre-Spidey spectacle The Quick and the Dead. Thanks to a hot (commodity speaking) Sharon Stone, fresh off the lingering Basic Instinct hype, the Evil Dead auteur got a chance to work out all his High Noon histrionics with the visual aplomb he was noted for. His camera in constant motion, his shot selection a veritable cornucopia of new and novel angles (including one incredible 'wounds eye view' perspective), Raimi reinvigorated the Western by realizing the areas that needed improvement. Unlike previous revamps by maestros such as Sergio Leone, the filmmaker avoided all the psychological ramifications and went right for the gut. The results were a partial reprieve for the format, and a great example of how style can salvage even the most antique artifacts. Miller's approach is similar – finding the places where spectacle can replace specifics - and using visuals to vault a sequence's primeval impact. Like a spaghetti western on steroids, a Frank Miller sagebrush saga would be amazing.

The Musical:

Yeah, it may seem like an odd choice, but the one thing that is definitely missing from the post-modern showtune dynamic is vision. Present day filmmakers, unfamiliar with the old school extravaganza of the genre's past, figure that if they merely fancy things up with bright lights, big stars, and lots of MTV-style edits, audiences will ignore the unreal situation of individuals randomly breaking out into song. But that's not the real problem with the musical's current hit or miss fortunes. No, what's really missing from the mix is pure artistic heft. It's what makes Busby Berkley's work within the category, classic and what elevates the MGM offerings from '30s through the '50s to the status of masterworks. But look at the recent attempts at reviving the artform. Chicago was a misguided mess (forget the Oscar) while Rent and Phantom of the Opera failed to generate much interest. And let's not even start in on Dreamgirls. If ever a musical missed the opportunity to play with images and era, it was this relatively routine interpretation of the Motown sound.

In fact, the last great big screen musical was also the last one to understand the need for a unique approach and look. While it was set in the '50s, and relied on a famous Roger Corman b-movie for its foundation, Frank Oz's masterful adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors created a world wholly its own, one based in the campy kitsch of the drive-in movie melded onto the sensational schlock of the subject matter. The opening number, and unbelievably moving "Downtown", sets the stage for the rest of the film's super sized sentiments. In fact, Oz was so effective at selling the love story between Seymour and his sweetheart Audrey that he had to change the original, downbeat ending. With someone like Miller portraying everything, from the conversations to the choreography, we'd witness the rebirth of a genre through the lost art of visual storytelling. Even better, the artist's inherent knowledge of what works best within a certain imagined moment would help to bring the hidden emotion and narrative undercurrents out of the songs. Lyrics demand performance and perspective to work effectively. Someone with a mind like Miller's could easily prove how substantial this stylized interpretation can be.

It has to be said that Silent Hill, The Quick and the Dead, and Little Shop of Horrors all represent just the tip of the treatment iceberg when it comes to bringing Frank Miller's visual acumen to the world of motion pictures. It is clear that what is required, aside from the artist's input, is a director in sync with his unusual approach, and a studio willing to gamble a little. No one is saying the combination will be perfect – after all, there are those who look to Sin City and 300 and scoff at the idea of Miller's brand of sketchpad simplicity. Still, for several genres that are sitting somewhere between outright death and cinematic life support, the unbelievable imagination of this arcane comic book mind could be the aesthetic salvage they so desperately deserve. If it worked for the pathetic peplum of the '50s and '60s, how can it not succeed elsewhere.

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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