Easy Targets: Liz & Dick

Easy Targets is an idea for a blog series that I just made up, which I imagine will cover moments in pop culture that are of such obvious heinousness that making fun of them is unnecessary. And then, you know, I’ll make fun of them. Our first entry? Liz & Dick, the glorious tire fire of a Lifetime Original Movie that debuted this past Sunday, pissing all over the freshly turned soil of Elizabeth Taylor’s grave.

Let me take a moment to thank god for made-for-TV movies. Thank you for giving us easy access to hysterical trash-drama and thickly slathered camp, saving us from the depths of the straight-to-DVD bargain bin and The Films of Sandra Bullock. Thank you for being a community theater for actors whose dreams would’ve otherwise died. Thank you for paying Dean Cain’s heating bill. Thank you for helping Joanna Kerns avoid having to go back to school and get that hotel management degree. And thank you for lowering all of our standards to allow something as lazy and absurd as Liz & Dick to become an actual viewing event.

What separates Liz & Dick from your typical made-for-TV movie is that it’s not a bad idea for a movie. The tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is one of the most compelling love stories in Hollywood history, full of ferocity and tenderness in equal amounts – a production devoted to exploring their one-of-a-kind dynamic, with the height of 1960s Hollywood ostentation as a backdrop, could be biopic gold. So, just by holding to the typical, low-rent Lifetime Original Movie template, Liz & Dick is already committing a sin. And lucky for us, it doesn’t stop there.

Lo, Liz & Dick wallows in its own unworthiness, with Lindsay Lohan delivering an “I couldn’t give a shit” performance for the ages. Faced with playing one of the 20th century’s most iconic and recognizable figures, Lohan doesn’t bother with the details, barely attempting to alter her own pack-a-day rasp of a voice, and generally behaving like a sleepwalker. (I know Liz loved her mood-altering substances, but to my knowledge, she never had a lobotomy.) In a cringeworthy scene where her and Grant Bowler (who actually attempts to make us believe he’s Burton, which is bo-ring) meet Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenwriter Ernest Lehman at a party, we’re supposed to believe Taylor is talking Lehman into letting her and Burton star in it by staging a argument. But in real life, the dazed woman droning “What was he, some Roman homosexual that you buggered?” would be asked to leave the premises. (The decision to reprise scenes of Woolf, the movie that best illustrated the battered genius of both actors, was just cruel – even for this.)

Lohan’s presence is, of course, what made Liz & Dick must-see trainwreck TV, and yes, our cups filleth over with delicious schadenfreude thanks to her performance. But to paraphrase the movie’s painfully overused line of dialogue, its flaws are more like an ocean. As far as the filmmakers would have us believe, Richard Burton was a bitchy guy who drank on occasion and died all pretty-like, and Liz Taylor was a drugged out zombie who could barely tip over a table when angry. These were two brilliant, gruesomely spoiled alcoholics who subsisted on brutally barbed exchanges, but the most the script provides is the occasional fat joke. Yes, Lohan trying would’ve helped, but there’s a bigger problem – this movie is only interested in its own existence, in the fact that it would get people to exclaim “She’s playing Elizabeth Taylor?!?!” Shining any kind of light on what these fascinating people were like behind closed doors? Fuck that. Taylor herself, in her prime, couldn’t salvage this.

By which I mean to say it was everything I’d hoped for. Less, even. Thank you, Lifetime, for understanding that funding, promoting and airing an insult to a legend a year after her death makes for the perfect kind of classless mess – a transcendently horrible made-for-TV movie.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (70-66)

70. Beck – Midnite Vultures (1999)

“Loud/quiet/loud” is about as standard as rock n’ roll formulas get. But few artists have applied the concept to entire albums the way Beck did from the mid-’90s to the early ’00s. After his sample-heavy, Def Jam-meets-Folkways pastiche Odelay made him an alt-rock hero in ’96, he followed it up with a gorgeous, late afternoon stroll of a country album. Which meant that he was due for a “loud” album by the time Midnite Vultures came around. And holy shit, did he deliver. Not only is the album in-your-face in a sonic way – being pretty much a string of intense electro-funk workouts from beginning to end – but its overall aesthetic is as thrillingly brash as the neon-green cover art. Beck’s trademark non sequiturs remain in full force, but they’re applied in a more distinctly sexual milieu, with titles like “Peaches & Cream” and “Milk & Honey,” and pick-up lines that reference satin sheets, tropical oils, Hyundais and JC Penney. It’s like a parody of a Prince album that just happens to be as musically adventurous as it is hilarious, a snapshot of an artist dealing with supersized expectations by making the craziest party album he possibly could. The music is wildly imaginative throughout, from the slick game show horns of “Sexx Laws” to the fembot synth pop of “Get Real Paid” and the classic Stax groove of “Debra,” Midnite Vultures’ shit-hot closer. With full-on falsetto verses, whispery sex talk and Vegas-ready horn stabs, “Debra” is an ingeniously absurd epic, and one of the most purely enjoyable R&B cuts of the decade. It’s that mix of rare quality and endearing irreverence that still makes Midnite Vultures a thrill of a listen. Of course, Beck’s next release was a tear-streaked breakup album.

No track embodies this album’s horndog-nerd-funk spirit like “Hollywood Freaks,” which satisfies your desire for hot milk nipple baths and Old Navy shout outs.

69. Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever (1997)

If a decision to make a double album ever felt like a no-brainer, it was this one. After Wu-Tang Clan blew the doors off of hip-hop with the indefatigable Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, ensuing solo albums from GZA, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man all became classics in their own right. So if Wu-Tang Forever was going to give all of these evolving mythologies and expanding egos any kind of breathing room, it was going to take two discs. RZA makes the most of the extended running time, his approach more cinematic than ever before, wrapping those trademark kung-fu sound bites and blaxploitation soul loops in ominous layers of strings. Which was all too appropriate, because if anything, the crew’s successes had made their worldview darker. This was the second album from the biggest rap crew on the planet, and they rarely, if ever, brag about money on it – something that would probably never happen in our post-Puffy and -Kanye world. The first single, “Triumph,” was a killer bee swarm of a showcase track; from the molten-hot rhymes of Inspectah Deck’s first verse on, the mood is more confrontational than triumphant. Because at its peak, the Wu wasn’t interested in non-fiction boasts. It was about world-building. They knew that if Wu-Tang Forever could do what most movie sequels can’t – stay true to the characters while taking them in compelling new directions – the money would come. And as all of the Wu Wear in my closet circa 1997 could attest, they most definitely pulled it off.

Give “For Heavens Sake” a spin, and marvel at how RZA can turn an old soul sample into a billowing thunderstorm.

68. Nirvana – In Utero (1994)

If what happened hadn’t happened, and In Utero didn’t end up being Nirvana’s de facto swan song, it wouldn’t be taken so gosh darn seriously. Which would be infinitely to its benefit. Because while the record does work as Kurt Cobain’s ragged middle finger to the trappings of rock stardom (his lyrics had never been so beautifully barbed), it works even better as a snapshot of geniuses fucking around. Beyond the accomplished demon-wrestling you get from the singles, In Utero is littered with blasts of punk deconstruction that are the sonic equivalent of a movie scene where an actor gets to destroy something. As Cobain screams maniacally during “Tourette’s” or bends his squealing guitar skyward on the riff to “Scentless Apprentice,” it sure sounds like he was having fun. Then there’s the irrefutable evidence. Toward the end of my favorite of these anarchic cuts, “Milk It,”  Cobain laughs as he delivers the thoroughly batshit chorus for the last time – “DOLL STEAK! TEST MEAT!” In that moment, any angst you were feeling goes up in smoke.

Listen to “Milk It,” whydontcha?

67. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)

With the release of Ill Communication, its third-straight stone-cold masterpiece, the Beastie Boys had completed one of the most remarkable artistic evolutions in pop music history. Within an eight-year period, the trio had gone from a snotty frat boy marketing concept to one of popular music’s most sonically expansive and socially conscious acts. If Licensed To Ill purists had any hopes that this one would hearken back to that fun-in-spite-of-itself debut, they were dashed on the opening cut, “Sure Shot.” Over that hallowed jazz flute sample, MCA poured out his regret over the Beasties’ once-misogynistic bent: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I offer my love and respect to the end.” Blending this kind of soul-searching with infectious rap free-for-alls, blistering punk romps and Mayfield-caliber funk instrumentals, Ill Communication is the sound of hip-hop ending its adolescence, flexing its muscles and realizing its own power.

Can any rap song boast the kind of dynamic chemistry the Beasties and Q-Tip possessed on “Get It Together”? It makes for one of my favorite tracks of the ’90s, despite my dislike of pineapple Now And Laters.

66. Air – Moon Safari (1998)

If you wanted to look cool smoking a cigarette in the late-’90s, putting Moon Safari on repeat was a pretty safe bet. Taking all of the stereotypical American ideas of what constitutes “French music” – loungey jazz, whisper-soft female vocalists, songs with “sexy” in the title – and filtering them through electronica’s spaciest kaleidoscope, Air’s debut album was a beautiful, warm bath of an acid trip. This was music that people in the ’90s would put on “chill-out” mixtapes to show they were men of many moods, deeper than the stammering, opinionated goofball on the surface. Not that I ever did that or anything. But Moon Safari is so much more than “chill-out” music – it’s not so much dreamy as it is an actual dream, a hazy sonic adventure that makes good on the promise of its title, where elegant bass lines guide you through alien, synthetic landscapes, with the occasional full-blown pop song to remind you that you’re earthbound. Air went on to make even more adventurous music, much of it lovely, none of it a voyage like this one.

Here’s one of those aforementioned pop songs, the otherworldly “All I Need.”