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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.