Reviews

Rock of the Aged, or, 'Rock of Ages'

With tired clichés and uninspired dance numbers, Rock of Ages feels as old as its music. The extras on the blu-ray, however, are worth seeing.


Rock of Ages

Director: Adam Shankman
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bryan Cranston, and Tom Cruise
Length: 110 minutes
Studio: New Line Cinema, Corner Store Entertainment, Material Pictures, Offspring Entertainment, Maguire Entertainment
Year: 2012
Distributor: Warner
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language
Release date: 2012-10-09

The '80s rock movement was not about anything other than having fun. The bars were fun. The parties were fun. Heck, the music didn't even have to make sense as long as it was fun.

So say the singers, songwriters, and spandex-wearing rock stars of the '80s in "Legends of the Sunset Strip", a 30-minute documentary on the Sunset Strip's music scene. It's included as bonus feature on the Rock of Ages Blu-ray, a disc packed with more extra footage than any fan could want, but missing the sole feature that made the movie worth watching. There's more than two hours of footage, but no more than a few quick glimpses of the movie's only highlight, Tom Cruise.

The movie tries to mimic its musical inspiration in intent, but it just isn't as fun as the music itself. The script is filled with stock characters, contrived plots, and misunderstood actors. Is it a comedy? A drama? A musical? No one knows from scene to scene, and it plays out awkwardly. Rock of Ages comes briefly to life when its stars start belting out the hits like "Sister Christian", "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", and "I Wanna Rock". Then you realize nothing more is going to happen and those numbers become pretty mundane, too.

In “It’s All About the Moves”, a bonus feature focusing on the dancing in the film, head choreographer Mia Michaels says she wanted it to appear like there may not be any choreography going on at all. Guess what. She nailed it. The dance numbers in this film are so lazily developed it’s easy to wonder if anyone was orchestrating anyone at all. The seven-minute featurette shows there was, but it may be better for Michaels’ career if she backs away from the credit on this one.

Better to lay the blame on director Adam Shankman. The choreographer-turned-director has already turned in one perfectly enjoyable musical—the 2007 hit Hairspray—and has had plenty of jobs in TV and film to assure his continued work. So he can survive the unquestioned hit he'll take for this critical and box office dud.

I don't know if I can say the same for the two young leads. Julianne Hough was terrific in last year's mini-hit Footloose, but her stock as a movie star took its first downward swing after this one. Even less can be said for pop-star-trying-to-turn-movie-star Diego Boneta. Miscast and not up for much more than faking playing guitar (he says in another bonus feature he learned how, but it doesn't come across on screen), Boneta should retreat back to his Latin music roots. Acting doesn't appear to be his forte.

The veterans will survive because of credit they've built up over the years. Alec Baldwin isn't great—especially in the musical numbers, where his movements are extremely rigid and uncoordinated—but how can you hold a grudge against Jack Donaghey? Catherine Zeta-Jones follows her one song's advice and gives it her best shot, but is again let down by far too simple staging. Seriously. Why are all the dance numbers in a plainly-dressed room? Bryan Cranston, who plays her husband and the city's mayor, isn't in the film enough to blame him for any problems.

As I touched on earlier, the one highlight is also the film's biggest star. Cruise never mails in a performance, and he's raring to go here as the aging rock star Stacee Jaxx. Oozing with nonstop sexual charisma, Jaxx is a confused (and drunk) soul who longs for love but only finds meaningless sex. Cruise contorts his posture so he's constantly thrusting his chest and stomach out in front of him. He projects an air of ownership, and boredom with that ownership

He also manages to elevate the material in a few otherwise-flat scenes, including an odd interchange about a "fire Phoenix" with Baldwin. He really shines right where we want him to: on stage. Cruise's renditions of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "I Want to Know What Love Is" would become legendary if anyone was willing to sit through the rest of the movie. They perfectly capture the sexual depravity and wild antics of the '80s—exactly what the rest of the film fails to do—and Cruise's voice is more than an acceptable substitute for the real rockers.

Baldwin, Shankman, and even the real members of Def Leppard have nothing but praise for the performance on the disc's special features, but we never get to hear from Cruise about his five-hours-a-day, five-month training schedule. He pops up in some behind-the-scenes video, including a couple shots of him in the recording booth and on stage. That's it, though.

Anyone who found enough joy in Rock of Ages to want to watch more, the Blu-ray release delivers everything else. There is an extended cut of the movie that adds about 13 minutes, including two seductive dance numbers by Julianne Hough. One of those also features Cruise as the two sing a duet of "Rock Me Like a Hurricane" while they swing around a stripper poll.

The scene was rumored to be cut in order to keep the more box office-friendly PG-13 rating, but I think they should have found a way to keep it. It helps the story ever so slightly, and it's got the second-best choreography of all the numbers (behind "I Want to Know What Love Is", also featuring Cruise). Michaels, the choreographer, says she and Shankman had a different idea for Cruise’s scenes, but he stepped in and worked with them to accomplish what ended up on screen—and what didn’t. That’s just one more reason to hate the MPAA.

Also included on the disc is a nifty feature that allows you to skip to any musical number and watch only that. If you can't already guess, I strongly recommend this option. There's also feature-length commentary from Shankman, Behind the Scenes short bonus clips, and another documentary featuring the real musicians who wrote the songs, this one about 13 minutes long. It's a pretty impressive package, even if no one was asking for it.

The same cannot be said for the film, though I don't know of too many people clamoring to hear movie stars sing karaoke. You can find it on YouTube if you do, and it won't cost you a dime.

3

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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