DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on “Rock of Ages” and Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Dark Ages

Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages

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There’s no question superb movies can be made about disreputable people or subjects. (“The Godfather” isn’t beloved because audiences condone the behavior of mobsters — it’s because of the greatness of the storytelling.) So I walked into “Rock of Ages” with an open mind, even though I’m not a fan of the music that’s celebrated in the film. Based on Chris D’Arienzo’s original stage show, “Rock of Ages” is a musical set in Los Angeles in 1987 during the height of hair-metal, with the characters singing a slew of ‘80s tunes from bands like Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Foreigner and others. And while the movie doesn’t work for plenty of reasons, one of its elements that most annoyed me was its treatment of its milieu. It’s fine if “Rock of Ages” likes that era’s rock music more than I do. But at least it should be honest about how terrible — and, frankly, kinda evil — that music was.

To start with, I should mention that I haven’t seen the original musical, so I can only speak for the film adaptation. But what’s on display is a collection of different types of rock music from the ‘80s — pop-metal, arena rock — that didn’t necessarily have a lot in common, except for the fact that it was popular and on the radio a lot. Importantly, its other commonality was that it was hopelessly corporate. If rock ‘n’ roll was at one time thought of as a dangerous cultural tool used by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to corrupt the youth of America, by the ‘80s it had become a safe, marketable commodity that record labels were churning out with alarming regularity. Sappy, pretty power ballads like “I Want to Know What Love Is” or defanged come-ons such as “Talk Dirty to Me” were the sound of the age, but there was nothing rebellious or risky about these songs: They were part of a user-friendly formula that would sell. It was all just entertainment.

It’s not that “Rock of Ages” needs to share my opinion on these songs, but the film’s fundamental problem is that it has no sense of irony or self-awareness about this disposable music. For the most part, the ‘80s hits are delivered with disturbing earnestness, as if there really is some wisdom in, for example, Extreme’s syrupy “More Than Words,” which actually was on the band’s 1990 album but nonetheless fits in just fine with the other tunes. And because there’s a sincerity to the performance of these old songs — Tom Cruise in particular is utterly dynamic as the rock god Stacee Jaxx — there comes with it a tacit approval of the music. To equate it to modern times, it would be like a movie musical that paid tribute to a genre or group that’s incredibly uncool to like, which, depending on your disposition, might be Insane Clown Posse or Rebecca Black. But “Rock of Ages” doesn’t seem aware of this fact: It treats these songs as if they’re actually good.

More unsettling, though, is how “Rock of Ages” glibly glosses over the ugly sexism of the period. While it’s true not every band from the era — or even every band featured in the film — participated in the trend, the ‘80s rock scene was a time when groups figured out that putting scantily clad babes in their videos was a great way to get them noticed. And so you had Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” and Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” which debased women in order to sell to guys. Though they weren’t the first groups to do it, ‘80s hair-metal bands tended to write two types of songs: aggressive rockers about looking for a good time (which usually involved getting laid) or saccharine ballads about the one good girl who got away. To be fair, I know several women who love this era of music, but there’s always a bit of a tongue-in-cheek factor going on beneath the surface, presumably because they know these songs tend to treat ladies as sex toys. Mainstream ‘80s rock is escapist nonsense, they’ll argue, and one shouldn’t take it too seriously. Fine, so why don’t we just go ahead and make earnest musicals about fatty foods, lame reality television and all the other stuff that’s bad for us while we’re at it?

If “Rock of Ages” wants to celebrate bad music, that’s its prerogative, but I wish it at least had a basic understanding of history. The way the film tells it, ‘80s rock represented passion and authenticity in a way that other music of the time didn’t. But if you lived through the era, you knows that’s simply not true. (And it’s worth pointing out that the film’s two main stars, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, were actually born after 1987.) For anyone whose appreciation of music extends beyond enjoying the sounds of white dudes playing guitars and drums, the ‘80s was an exciting period for lots and lots of great music that wasn’t traditional rock. There was Prince merging R&B and funk with rock and pop. There was Madonna transforming disco for a new era. There was Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J and Public Enemy bringing hip-hop to the general public. And then there were metal groups like Metallica, who actually were restoring rock’s edginess by writing frankly about suicide, nuclear war and hypocrisy. But “Rock of Ages” isn’t paying attention to any of that — or if it is, it’s being snobby about it. (One of the film’s characters gets distracted from his rock ‘n’ roll ambitions by joining a New Kids on the Block-like boy band, which is meant to symbolize a soul-crushing loss of principle.) In Nick Pinkerton’s dead-on takedown of “Rock of Ages” in The Village Voice, he attributes this deficiency in the film’s thinking to racism, but for me it’s more a sign of a deeply lame rock-and-rock-alone philosophy that too many fans have. Basically, if a song doesn’t come from a group who looks like a rock band, then it’s not “real music.” I hate to break it to these people, but by the time Poison was topping the charts, rock music wasn’t really “real music” anymore: It was watered-down pop as synthetic and prepackaged as any New Kid on the Block copycat.

Dramas based on real stories will often get criticized for their airbrushing of history, which sometimes has to happen so that the film can have a happy ending or that the more problematic aspects of the protagonist’s personal story don’t cloud our admiration for him. But “Rock of Ages” sells a complete falsehood that you shouldn’t accept. To this movie’s way of thinking, there’s no difference between Warrant and Guns N’ Roses, which isn’t the case at all. The same year that this movie is set, Guns N’ Roses released “Appetite for Destruction,” and while they definitely were part of L.A’s Sunset Strip scene depicted in the film, there was an unique intensity and danger to their music, and frontman Axl Rose’s lyrics spoke honestly about the depravity and desperation of the period. “Appetite for Destruction” was a rebuke to the more pop-friendly calculation of other groups, and even though the album had monster hits, including the power ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” you could sense the passion and originality in every note. (Soon after, Nirvana and grunge would hammer the final nail into the corporate-rock coffin — at least for a time.) But “Rock of Ages” either isn’t aware or simply doesn’t care about such distinctions: As far as the movie is concerned, it’s all just eyeliner and big hair and fun fun fun. Sadly, the negligible bands praised in “Rock of Ages” are still with us in the form of groups like Nickelback or Hinder, who are all big, dumb rockers whose only selling point is that they’re not Justin Bieber. After watching “Rock of Ages,” I was reminded why nowadays I prefer Bieber. At least he’s not deluded enough to think he’s selling authenticity.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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