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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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