AC/DC’s 40th anniversary seems to have a chink in its armour as controversy seems to be looming around a planned docudrama film about their fallen lead vocalist, Bon Scott. Ronald Belford Scott died tragically, but not surprisingly, back in February 1980 from what The UK coroner ruled as “Death By Misadventure” after a drinking binge in London. For some six years, Scott gained a reputation as a rock and roll frontman that would later earn him honours as the greatest frontman of all time according to some prominent rock periodicals.
High Voltage Productions, LLC. a film production company based out of Charleston, South Carolina in the United States, has been working on a docudrama film about Scott since late 2012 and have received worldwide attention concerning the project. The film’s star, actor/musician, Rob Liotti, skyrocketed into the limelight after being named as the actor to portray the late frontman and has become quite well known in the entertainment community. Naturally, this is to be expected given the gravity and anticipation of a movie finally taking shape about the Aussie music icon’s career. AC/DC has a massive fan base that stretches across every continent.
Why then the controversy?
It has been learned that New York City attorneys for AC/DC, its production company, Albert Productions Pty., and its branding company, along with solicitors out of Sydney, Australia representing the Estate of Bon Scott, have both threatened legal action against the producers should the project move forward. Both have sent letters to the company that ask for production to cease and desist and both firms have made rather overreaching demands against the company that would seem to completely discount and ignore something called the First Amendment, in the opinion of the company.
“How many unauthorised biographies and documentaries have been made about everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Jimi Hendrix? Filmmakers have a right to tell a story without tortious interference. Naturally, there are boundaries... But a lot of these networks and filmmakers REALLY push those boundaries and still produce their product. The screenwriter had enough respect as a fan of the band to tell the story properly and truthfully based upon facts already well known and public a lot of which the band readily discloses themselves!”
News of the project spread like wildfire as the media and fans of Scott and AC/DC worldwide learned that a project was in the works. It was reported a few months ago that media moguls, NBC Universal in London, UK had the project in their hands and were giving serious consideration to an acquisition deal for international television distribution. NBC Universal had actually reached out to the American production company after seeing the media blitz. The fact that one of the largest entertainment companies in the world reached outside for a project rather than plucking it out of a stack full of wannabe TV and movie submissions is nearly unheard of in today’s media market. Thus, one sees the gravity of the project and the demand for its completion. It seems, however, that when NBC Universal made enquiries about licensure of AC/DC’s music for the film, the band’s legal team immediately took the prospect of the film actually coming to fruition very seriously and initiated what appears to be a campaign against the filmmakers.
The attorney, Stuart Prager of Grubman Indursky & Shire, P.C. in NYC, speaking on their behalf scoffed, “This movie WILL NOT get made...!” in a phone call to counsel for HVP. The law firm represents such artists as U2, Lady Gaga, and the Whitney Houston Estate. It has been reported that Mr. Prager has had former dealings with Universal and familiarity with the company.
Yet, there seems to be no basis whatsoever for the current posture of the band or the estate of the late singer according to experts at Stanford University Law School who review cases like this as part of a First Amendment and Fair Use endowment at the prestigious university. Their experts consulting with HVP’s legal team saw “no infringement whatsoever...” but did recommend amending the film’s title to reflect that the docudrama was ‘unauthorised’. Such amendment has been made without hesitation.
Judges have been very consistent about ruling in favor of documentary filmmakers when SLAAP suits or threats thereof pervade. SLAAP suits are “a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) that is intended to censor, intimidate, or silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” In other words, overwhelm the little guy with so much legal wrangling and attorney’s fees that they fold, wither, and blow away especially in a David vs. Goliath case like this.
Again, the question that prevails is: Why? Why is there such opposition to this much anticipated project nearly thirty-four years later?
High Voltage Productions disclosed to NBC Universal and other production houses enquiring that they “did not ever anticipate the agreeable licensure of AC/DC’s music for the film.” Further, they disclosed that they had contacted AC/DC’s longtime production company, Albert Productions Pty. in Australia prior to undertaking any development of the film to “respectfully inform Malcolm Young and Alberts of our plans and to faithfully request the opportunity to license their music for such and important project...” The friendly correspondence went unanswered.
AC/DC, one of the highest grossing musical acts of all time, can do nothing but benefit from such a project. It is readily known that many unauthorized biographical documentaries have been produced and broadcasted without incident. And networks like E! would be out of business if they were unable to broadcast real life ‘True Hollywood Stories’ and often seedy but true docs on celebrities. They do it because they have a First Amendment right to free speech and they are not purposely injuring, defaming, or violating the privacy of the individual because they are broadcasting true and cited information. AC/DC and the late singer’s estate stand to gain nothing but more fame and popularity through publicity surrounding the film and surely an increase in music sales especially back catalogue material that was recorded during the years Scott performed with and wrote for AC/DC. They stand to make yet more money after the Young Family (Angus and Malcolm et al) were recently named one of Australia’s wealthiest families.
Oddly enough, AC/DC has always been about ‘sticking it to The Man’ as is heard ad nauseum in their lyrics. They speak incessantly of being held down and handcuffed by the establishment. Yet in 2013, it appears that they may have actually become The Man whilst aligning themselves with fiscal giants like WalMart, iTunes, the Iron Man franchise, etc. To fans, this departure may be troubling. It is also no secret that Bon Scott may have been on his way out of AC/DC at the time of his demise and as far back as 1975 either by the hand of the band and their handlers or by his own fruition. In either case, he was likely moving on and often discussed a solo career. Bottom line: no one is accountable for what never happened. He is simply gone and an AC/DC martyr that can be held up as a rock hero. And he is...
The fact is that “Bon Scott The Legend of AC/DC Unauthorised” is a movie about Bon Scott, not AC/DC in and of themselves. The band, while certainly relevant, is incidental to the whole of the story, as is their music. Most ‘fans’ of Scott (who was most recently voted Australia’s second most popular singer of all time) only came to know him as “AC/DC’s singer who died...” and are oft unaware that he was actually not even their first vocalist and actually replaced original singer, Dave Evans, who now lives in Texas. Moreover, there are at least two generations of fans who, through no fault of their own, are only familiar with Back in Black forward to present day. So, this film promises to bring a whole new throng of fans to admire the machine that is now AC/DC and to many, and obscure Australian rock icon called Bon Scott.
“One thing that is extremely troubling about this whole matter is that you hear AC/DC’s music on everything from WalMart commercials to ridiculous reality shows. But the band sends what is reported to be the most powerful entertainment law firm in the country to attack a small production company with threats of injunctions and litigation because we asked about using their music and expressed our intention to lawfully exercise our First Amendment right. So, we get threats of an injunction while some halfwit reality show about tow trucks uses 'Highway To Hell'. Wow... that is a real tribute to Bon.”
If the name of the game is money, then AC/DC are on top of their game. All agree that they have earned their way to the top of the heap. We salute you. Vocalist Brian Johnson and his wife, as well as bassist Cliff Williams and his wife do wonderful charity work through their philanthropy in Florida where they both reside. But money is meant to be made by all.
Filmmakers tell stories; some better than others. For those who detract, almost thirty-four years have gone by and no one has made this movie. The Australian government, who funds filmmaking in Scott’s adopted home country, only agreed to fund $20,000 AUS for a seemingly gimme project. Obviously not what is needed. High Voltage Productions has reportedly spoken with some possible executive producers to fund the project, but have not yet gotten the desired commitment.
“As movies go, this is not a ‘big’ budget project per se. Certainly, $5M is nothing to scoff at, and we feel like that is a realistic figure. If the right person/company came with $4M and it was the right fit, we do our damndest to make that budget work. If someone comes with $8M and says ‘do what you need’ then all the better. But, this project is not all about money. We actually care about the subject matter. Naturally we want the project to be profitable, but getting the film made and in the can matters most right now and seeing that our investor recoups their capital.”
“We also have a big advantage: South Carolina and North Carolina both offer very attractive film incentives and rebates with the passage of current legislation. For an executive producer funding the project, that means a great deal. Many big budget films have shot here, and we have the studio facilities, personnel, and apparatus to make it happen. You would see a lot of the same names in credits as you would have seen in The Notebook, The Patriot, Army Wives, Reckless, Ace Ventura 2, and so on. Plus, we have the plausible location settings to pull it off with the proper authenticity.”
“We have already shot a teaser trailer with Rob Liotti portraying Bon. It was historic as it was the first dramatic footage ever shot of Bon Scott’s character or of that which is AC/DC. I know the director, J.R. Getches, would be the first to tell you that the actor definitely channels the late Scott and that they have the right guy for the role. Plus the story is all there. While bogging us down with legal paperwork may delay the project, there is absolutely nothing defamatory or damaging to AC/DC or Bon Scott’s Estate about telling a true story, nor does it infringe on their privacy or brand plate. We aren’t forging belt buckles and printing tee shirts with their name.”
Obviously, High Voltage Productions is simply attempting to fill an artistic void. They want to tell a story about the tragic death of a talented young man who came from humble beginnings and was full of personality and the vigor to be someone special. He wanted to be a rock star... Bringing this story to life is an homage; it satisfies the desire of past, present, and future fans to examine and appreciate life’s lessons and whether it is truly desirable to be famous and revered. Is it a control issue? Is it money? Is it the fear of unknown truth being exposed? Trying to prevent such artistic expression is a complete denial of the fact that had it not been for Bon Scott, AC/DC would surely not be as relevant after forty years.