A Sonic Guide to Hollywood Directors

I’d like to begin with the brief disclaimer that NOWHERE IN THIS IS NICOLAS CAGE MENTIONEDWhew.

I should also credit The Golden Briefcase podcast and their May Episode (#108) on Dark Shadows where a very apt analogy is made between Tim Burton and AC/DC. Witness the monster you’ve now created.

6. Tim Burton is AC/DC

I’ve had no qualms in expressing my displeasure for a lot of Tim Burton’s movies, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit his early stuff was pretty durn unique.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands in particular all blend Burton’s signature wacked out art house aesthetic with a bizarre brand of dark humor. When you pair them with maestro Danny Elfman’s demented circus scores, the result is some of the best films from the 80’s and early 90’s.

Then something happened. After 1992, Burton started retreading his own stuff, obsessing over remakes of dead franchises.

Wait, how does AC/DC fit into any of this?

The aforementioned analogy between Burton and AC/DC works if you consider that both respective artists have enjoyed the most success while not producing their best work.  But you could argue that about tons of directors, right? Where things get weird is when you break things down to specifics.

  • “Bon Scott” AC/DC: 3.8x Platinum/album. This is Highway to Hell, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, High Voltage, etc.
  • “Brian Johnson” AC/DC: 4.3x Platinum/album.  Of course, Back in Black is a big reason for the increase. When you consider that those later years include forgettable schlock like Fly on the Wall and Flick of the Switch, it says a lot.

Similarly, Burton’s top 5 highest grossersare as follows:

  • Alice in Wonderland (2010) at $334 million
  • Batman (1989) at $251 million
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) at $206 million
  • Planet of the Apes (2001) at $180 million
  • Batman Returns (1992) at $162 million

You’ll notice two things: 1) None of those films represent Burton’s original ideas and 2) All of them were released after 1990’s Edward Scissorhands.

Early Burton — which for simplicity’s sake we’ll term “The Keaton Years” — is marked by a new, visionary style.  Early AC/DC, “The Bon Scott Years,” is much the same way.  While many argue the band’s later work with Brian Johnson following Scott’s death yielded the band’s most recognizable songs, old school AC/DC drew from the Australian group’s fascination with old school American blues, in addition to Angus Young’s obsession with Chuck Berry. I’d now like to draw everyone’s attention to Exhibit Duh:

Still, the Bon Scott Years’ greatest contribution, Highway to Hell, remains a hard rock staple that is often overshadowed by its successor, 1980’s Back in Black. And rightfully so. Probably.

“The Depp Years” represent Burton at his most familiar: Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, and most recently Dark Shadows. The partnership between Burton and Depp has gotten to a point of self-parody where it’s just expected that the two will pair up. After the death of Bon Scott, Johnson’s entry into the group signaled a different sound and markedly more success.  Back in Black is easily AC/DC’s most successful album to this day, going 22x Platinum in the U.S. alone, but that isn’t surprising. “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Hell’s Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” not to mention the title track all add up to a monumental gargantuan of a rock album.  Well, Burton’s later work is a lot like that, if not in quality then certainly in notoriety and big bucks. Whenever Depp appears in a Burton movie, their domestic box office average is over $110 million. That’s on average.

There is a downside to all this success, though. The later creative oeuvre of both Burton and Australia’s finest have shown a marked decline in ingenuity. Remember what I said about self-parody? Well, the former’s recipe can be boiled down to: Wacky Depp performance + Danny Elfman score + twisted barber shop art direction and… really, that’s it.  AC/DC is in a similar boat; I’m being reductive for simplicity’s sake here, but not by a wide margin.  Back in Black remains AC/DC’s greatest work, but that came at the cost of, dare I say, really sapping the group of a lot of its energy and creativity.  For every “Who Made Who” and “Thunderstruck” there are ten “Satellite Blues.”

5. Michael Bay is U2

Before everybody starts with the ‘I’m not sure who’s more insulted here hyuck hyuck,’ let me start by saying that U2 and Michael Bay are immensely successful and have made more money than I could even have a wet dream about.

And they both make me want to violently end it all.

Let me qualify that. I enjoy “Vertigo” and “Beautiful Day” as much as I get a kick out of The Rock and 2007’s Transformers, but it’s tough to reconcile massive worldwide love and utter disdain. If you’ll allow me to talk numbers again, Michael Bay’s most recent release, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is the all-time fourth highest grossing film worldwide, which means even people in Bangladesh like this shit. Bay also owns the fourth highest gross of all-time out of any director ever, sharing the ranks alongside Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg. But the youngest of those guys, Cameron, is still eleven years older than Bay. That’s depressingly impressive for a man who specializes in flammability. 

Now U2 have won more Grammys than any other band (22) and their 12 studio albums have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. Yet with “Beautiful Day” as an exception, I can’t stand them. My disdain isn’t something that can be chalked up to Bono’s limitless douche-dom. It goes deeper. U2, in particular later U2, has fashioned this synthetic, worldly sound that tries to appeal to everyone everywhere all the time. While it works (clearly), I can’t help but recall Sarah Marshall’s rant on Aldous Snow’s “bowshit” tattoos.

Seriously, and some of these lines straddle bowshit and weirdness remarkably well:

True love never can be rent
But only true love can keep beauty innocent
 
I’ve got no self-control
Been living like a mole now
Going down, excavation
 
But I of course saved the best for last:
 
I like the sound of my own voice
I didn’t give anyone else a choice
An intellectual tortoise
Racing with your bullet train
 
The hell, man. Those last lines are from 2004’s “All Because of You” and I just… fuck it.
South Park might have been onto something…

Once in a while, I’ll forget to switch the channel after Always Sunny and a Two and a Half Men rerun will rear its hideous head. Loud protests naturally bubble up from anyone who happens to be in the same room. ‘Ugh, how can this stuff be so popular? The worst, man!’ But let’s not forget something very important here. Least objectionable programming aims for the lowest common denominator because nine times out of ten that’s where the money is. People love explosions, boobs, and explosive boobs just like people love thinking about “one heart” and generations that can change the world.

Tempting as it is to wish Mr. Bay and U2 would fly their giant dildo rocket into the well-lit portion of the moon, that’s probably not going to happen. Unless they’re throwing some kind of TNT-fueled fundraiser for tetanus in Botswana. 


You know what? I’d better stop brainstorming for them.

4. Quentin Tarantino is Kanye West

I think this one’s pretty obvious, but maybe that just makes me a self-gratifying asshole. Speaking of which…

Tarantino and Kanye have garnered tremendous success, and their biographies are as reminiscent of each other as they are representative of the transition from sitting on the sidelines to the standing at the creative forefront. Tarantino famously worked at the Video Archives rental store instead of opting for film school. Kanye began as a producer before becoming a hip-hop megastar. And then both saw a tremendous upswell of good will and critical acclaim in an extremely condensed period of time. How many hits were off of The College Dropout alone? Likewise, Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs blew audiences away at Sundance while birthing the rise of pop culture-filled dialogue we still see today. *stands up and points at Diablo Cody*

It’s also apparent that neither Kanye nor Tarantino shy away from controversy. The former’s snaffu at the VMAs has been parodied and riffed on to no end, but Yeezy in general simply lacks any sort of filter: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a ludicrously bad art film, a Christ-inspired Rolling Stone cover, etc. If you’re not convinced of Kanye’s greatness, don’t worry. He’ll explain it to you himself.

Tarantino enjoys provocation just as much. Name one picture that doesn’t at the least include misogyny or ultraviolence. Of course, a lot of that is in service to a larger message about empowered figures in cinema (see: Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and most obviously, Death Proof). He also drops a few N-bombs in Pulp Fiction though so take from that what you will. Much like Mr. West, QT also can lack a filter, whether that’s a physical one:

 

Or a verbal one:

Cocaine is a hell of a drug.
That brings me to the eclecticism. I’ve read that Kanye doesn’t listen to hip-hop nearly as much as he does to alternative or indie rock; Nirvana is allegedly one of his all-time faves. And that doesn’t in the least bit surprise me. Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” is all over “Champion,” and look no further than “Good Life” or “Izzo” for Michael Jackson samples. Kanye didn’t even hide a King Crimson sample from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s “Power”: 


If you’ve noted the exaggerated zooms in Kill Bill or the selections on any of his soundtracks, you’ll know Tarantino is in the same boat here. The guy lives and breathes in the obscure: blaxploitation, gangster and kung-fu films are among his countless genre references. Half the shots in his films are homages to something else. Not to mention, the dude co-created Grindhouse, an unabashed love-letter to films that came out 30+ years ago:

Just don’t ask what might ensue if they were to team up. The thought is equal parts awesome and terrifying.

3. Steven Spielberg is Bruce Springsteen

Call it trivial but both of their respective careers took off in the 1970s, and for the most part they’re still kicking it today. Spielberg, if his name isn’t attached to some “executive producer” credit, is constantly churning out a huge film every other year. Springsteen released Wrecking Ball earlier in 2012 and like Spielberg, has remained relevant with tours as well as a sizable fan base. 


What’s more, they really blew up in the 80’s, if those coke beards are any indication. Springsteen’s four studio albums, The River, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, and the hugely successful Born in the U.S.A. went 24x Platinum combined. That’s huge. Spielberg was no slouch then either. In addition to overseeing projects like Gremlins, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Poltergeist, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Land Before Time, he also directed E.T. as well as a little trilogy about some guy named Indiana motherfucking Jones: 



This comparison goes beyond happy coincidences in career history, though. Both Springsteen and Spielberg are as likely to be influenced as they are influential. Spielberg’s affected everyone from Peter Jackson to J.J. Abrams; last year’s fantastic Super 8 doubles as a cinematic hard-on for Close Encounters and E.T. But Spielberg is equally willing to take notes from others as well. He ditched stop-motion for computers in visualizing dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, and it’s clear from projects like The Adventures of Tin Tin that he’s embraced the powers of CGI and animation wholesale. 

Still creepy as shit, though…

And just as Springsteen’s older stuff is clearly drawn from Bo Diddley or Woody Guthrie, one of his newest songs, “Death to My Hometown,” sounds more like a Pogues or Dropkick Murphys cut.  He’s constantly adapting his sound, yet can anyone claim The Bawse hasn’t influenced Arcade Fire or The Killers? Good luck trying.

2. Kevin Smith is Weezer

Ah, the 90’s. A decade that saw an explosion of film school directors who didn’t just buck the conventions of Hollywood; they flipped them the bird. Two of them in some cases. Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino, David Fincher, and Kevin Smith all rose to prominence during this period. And nobody strayed from the beaten path more than Mr. View Askewniverse.

Although I was exactly six when Kevin Smith’s Clerks. came out, I can still appreciate its importance. Smith used static framing, no-name actors, and even the convenience store he worked at for a set to craft one the most revolutionary indie films of all-time. Yes, of all-time.

Clerks. isn’t perfect by any means, but it is a cinematic time capsule from the disillusioned youth of Clinton era America. More importantly, Smith proved you didn’t need a fancy Hollywood studio to make a film. In fact, you didn’t need a studio at all. By maxing out several credit cards, taking out loans and even selling part of his comics collection, Kevin Smith financed Clerks. himself for around $27,000. Flash forward to 2009’s Cop Out.

Wait what?

It’s hard to tell exactly what happened between those fifteen years, but the critically-panned Cop Out is indeed from the same director.

Weezer is also a child of the 90’s. Their self-titled 1994 release — the same year as Clerks. so BOOM — commonly referred to as The Blue Album, remains one of my favorite albums of all-time. Yes, of all-time.

Weezer combined grunge, punk, and pop together and then sealed it shut in a gigantic box of awkwardness. Because middle school was rough. That goes double for their 1996 followup, Pinkerton, which was arguably even better.

Once again, let’s jump ahead in time to… “Can’t Stop Partying?” 

Okay, seriously what happened?

With Smith, I think his slow decline in producing quality films is a result of his rebellious nature, specifically a refusal to give two craps about anyone else’s opinion. Keep in mind this is the same guy who chain smokes bowls before getting on his podcast network to profess his love for the Fleshlight. Many postulate that the guy was a one-note director to begin with and really stated all he had to say after Chasing Amy. Now I don’t think that’s true, especially in light of last year’s Red State, which was as much a political satire as it was a horror film. No, Smith seems to have simply fallen into his own comfort zone. The aforementioned filmic universe his filmography has created — dubbed the “View Askewniverse” after his production company — is noteworthy. I only wonder if he could’ve left it a few years sooner. Then again, who the hell am I to say?

Pictured: Millionaire

I think I have Weezer pinned down, though. Their frontman, Rivers Cuomo, has been obsessed with writing a #1 single for the better part of the last decade. The man has literally catalogued hundreds of guitar riffs and even journaled about what makes a pop song so damn catchy. Still, success alludes him, particularly critical with recent releases.  Gone are the introspective lyrics and nerd rock sound. They’ve been brushed to the side in favor of cheese pop refrains and obvious, artificial hooks.

I might even argue Weezer should stop altogether, if I could promise I wouldn’t pre-order any future releases. But we both know that isn’t true.

1. Stanley Kubrick is Ludwig Van Beethoven

I’ll say it. The greatest composer of all-time lines right up with the greatest director of all time. And they were both fucking insane a-holes.

As plenty of Cracked articles have already pointed out, Kubrick was sort of crazy. The director was well known for his excessive attention to detail. As the famous story goes, he once made Shelly Duvall do a single take from The Shining over one hundred times before he was satisfied. For one take. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick shot Sydney Pollack walking over to a door for two straight days. As someone who churned out college papers hours before the deadline, I would argue this detailed approach is strangely… responsible?

Shelly Duvall smiles alongside Kubrick. Now that’s acting.

Kubrick’s obsession went beyond that, though, into details you would never notice. The ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey was designed so that it could actually work in space. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s design of the B-52 bomb was so correct that Uncle Sam suspected the director might have found less than official ways of discovering the then-still-classified plans for it.

Beethoven was quite the eccentric, too. The man was known to loudly hum music in the street, all the while waving his arms in complete obliviousness to his surroundings. That’s when he wasn’t peering into other people’s windows or dissing the upper class or forgetting to button his fly. He once sat down in a restaurant and scribbled notes for hours before demanding the bill, never having realized that he hadn’t ordered anything.

One story describes a dinner between Beethoven and a friend where a waiter brought the composer the wrong dish. Like any normal person would, Beethoven threw the contents of his plate back at the waiter and proceeded to curse the man out. And then suddenly, Beethoven stopped and began laughing uncontrollably. Classic.

Despite how insane they were, they’ve also pervaded pop culture in huge ways. You can credit Kubrick with indirectly changing “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to “2001.” And let’s not forget the famous bicycle scene in The Shining:


Wait a minute…

The Simpsons all by itself has referenced Kubrick countless times. A “Treehouse of Horror” featuring Pierce Bronson in a HAL parody comes to mind. There’s also this:

He’s even forever twisted our memory of Johnny Carson.

We’re still good on Singin’ in the Rain, though.

And no matter how “boring” you may thinkhe is, I guarantee you know something by Beethoven. The “Fur Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata” are iconic piano pieces by themselves. Along with any mouth-breathing jagweed who tries and fails to play “Heart and Soul” for 15 minutes on your sister’s keyboard, both are right up there as the most recognizable piano tunes of all time. Let’s not forget the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony or “Ode to Joy” which caps off his Ninth, too. It doesn’t hurt that his other seven aren’t too shabby, either.

But Beethoven’s greatest contribution? Probably creating a whole goddamned era in music.

What most philistines (and iTunes) will refer to as “Classical music” isn’t exactly that. Technically, what we know as Classical is closer to Orchestral music, further divided up into different eras: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Neoclassical, etc. It’s like a Van Halen/Van Hagar kind of thing.

Now granted, it’s pretty bold to claim any one dude ushered in such a huge change in music. But if there’s one person who did do it, it was Beethoven. The man helped transition from the Classical to the Romantic periods by blending the former’s emphasis on virtuosity and melody with the latter’s obsession with darkness and complex emotions.

For some context, someone like Mozart is considered Classical. Compare his 40th Symphony, reduced to a Nokia ringtone these days, to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. For a sixteen year difference, the contrasts are vast. The prominence of bombastic percussion alone gave Beethoven’s pieces what many music scholars refer to as BALLS.

“I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal.”
-Beethoven

The lesson here is that we should all listen to crazy jerk wads. And I see no possible way that could backfire.

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