When films trade on nostalgia for the not-so-distant past, they're often more fun to watch in the not-so-distant future.
The trailer for Rock of Ages, the '80s-set jukebox musical that hits theaters Friday, promises two things: the "music of a generation" and "an event for the ages." With versions of everything from Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," there's no question that the movie makes good on the former.
But "event for the ages" is a far more interesting claim. Rock of Ages rides in on a wave of recent movies like Adventureland, Take Me Home Tonight, and Hot Tub Time Machine, which treat the 1980s—which ended less than 25 years ago—with all the historical distance of a comedy of manners or a costume drama. Period films have existed almost as long as film has existed. But Rock of Ages is an intriguing entry in a small-but-growing subgenre to the period film that that could be called the "nostalgia film": a "period film" released just 10 to 30 years after the era in which its set has ended. The best time to watch movies like these often isn't when they're released, but rather decades later—when we can nostalgically look back on how nostalgia used to look.
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Nostalgia films go through three different filters: the period the film is set in, the period the film is released in, and the period the film is viewed in.
Singin' in the Rain—the first and best of the major nostalgia movies—is a movie set in 1927 that came out in 1952. Like last year's Best Picture winner The Artist, Singin' in the Rain eulogizes the silent-film era by showing the difficulty of one silent star's transition to the talkies. But unlike The Artist, Singin' in the Rain was released at a time when a large portion of its audience actually lived through the end of the silent-film era. Audiences in 1952 would have understood the film's winking references to icons like Norma Talmadge and Clara Bow, which are far more likely to go over audiences' heads in 2012.
As Singin' in the Rain shows, with time each nostalgia film goes through not two, but three different era-appropriate filters: the period the film is set in, the period the film is released in, and the period the film is viewed in. The most interesting part of the nostalgia film doesn't come when it's first released; it comes 20 to 30 years later, when the film is old enough to give us insight into two totally separate eras simultaneously. Singin' in the Rain may originally have been intended as a loving homage to silent films, but viewed through contemporary eyes, it's also the clear pinnacle of the Hollywood musical's golden age and a snapshot of star Gene Kelly at his absolute best.
And Singin' in the Rain is far from alone. Back to the Future took winking jabs at the 1950s, but its scenes set in the "present" are now a perfect window into 1980s America, from the jokes about Ronald Reagan and Libyan terrorists to Marty's failed attempt to order a Tab and a Pepsi Free. In 2012, 1988's Hairspray reads simultaneously as a critique of 1960s-era racial segregation and a camp classic from the campiest era in cinematic history. And the second and third Austin Powers movies, which use time travel to poke fun at the 1960s and 1970s, have also retroactively become a paean to a bygone era in which Mike Myers's shtick was the biggest comedy draw in Hollywood.
There's already a certain self-awareness to Rock of Ages, which casts '80s icon Tom Cruise as a different kind of '80s icon altogether. But given the mostly negative reviews it's drawing, it might be smart to skip Rock of Ages this weekend and wait to rent it (or stream in your glasses? download into your brain?) in 2042. For all its attempts to depict 1987 at its hair-metal best, Rock of Ages will eventually be just as much a relic of 2012—a brief, strange time in which Russell Brand was a marquee name, Tom Cruise played a strutting, sex-god rocker, and audiences could hear a song like "Don't Stop Believin'" anywhere but an oldies station.