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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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