Beyond the metric ton of starpower attached to it, Rock of Ages presents itself as being from the director of Hairspray and, knowing full well that the poster in the theatre lobby meant Adam Shankman—who helmed the uninspiring 2007 adaptation of the musical based on the seminal John Waters comedy—I briefly entertained the vision of Waters taking on a schlocky musical about the sleazy Los Angeles strip in the late-1980s—its glam rock foundation crumbled under the crushing weight of egotism, drugs, venereal disease, and Nirvana—and came away really wanting to see that movie. Even shedding Waters, the period of time covered by Rock of Ages is one rife with potential, during which rap was gaining clout, heavy metal was allegedly driving children to ill deeds, and the titanic trio of Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder, and John Denver fought against Tipper Gore and the P.M.R.C. before a Senate hearing on “porn rock.”
Rock of Ages synthesizes this into your basic Rock ‘n Roll vs. The Man story, and uses that as the backdrop before which two crazy kids from out of town meet, fall in love, break up, and reconcile. The kids are Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough)—just a small town girl (from Tulsa, really, which has more than a few stoplights, but at least she’s entitled to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”)—and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta)—a city boy who may or may not be from south Detroit—and they share the common goal of hair metal stardom, though neither look the type. Diego works at the famous Bourbon Room—pretty much the cradle of that particular civilization—and, in short order, he lands Sherrie a job there as a waitress.
The Bourbon Room is run by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his debauched sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand), who manages its stage. They’re drowning in a sea of debt and back taxes, and are relying on a concert by the enigmatic, mercurial, messianic Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to right the ship. Jaxx, as it turns out, has lost his muse. He’s a failed artist getting by on booze and sex (and likely cocaine, but Rock of Ages never touches the hard stuff), and relies wholly on his manager Paul (Paul Giamatti) as his shepard and mediator. A wandering reporter from Rolling Stone (Malin Akerman) kindly informs Jaxx that his boyish posturing has grown old and that his songwriting gifts are needed more than his predilection for groupies and monkey sidekicks, so he has a lot to think about. Meanwhile, a mayor seeking re-election (Bryan Cranston), sics his buzzkill wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) on an issue, and she chooses the debauchery of the Bourbon Room and its music. Watching Patricia Whitmore on television decrying his club, Lonny is convinced he’s seen her somewhere before, but can’t quite put his finger on where.
That’s a lot of balls to juggle, and Rock of Ages handles them as clumsily as possible without completely falling apart. Jaxx’s manager takes all of the money from the gig, leaving Dennis and Lonny in the lurch. Stacee and the reporter have sex and separate, still obsessed. Drew sees Sherrie leave a room with Jaxx and is convinced that she had sex with him. They break up, Sherrie quits the club, and Drew signs a contract with Gill, reaching for those rock and roll fantasies under the assumed name Wolfgang Von Colt, ridiculous-sounding even in the sonic landscape of Stryper, Def Leppard, and Enuff Z’Nuff. Of the resulting storylines, only Sherrie’s is given a truly significant chunk of time, which is a shame because Cruise, Giamatti, Baldwin, and Brand were so clearly enjoying themselves as glammed-up rock caricature. Hough, by contrast, finds herself waiting tables at the Venus Club, a strip joint that serves to shoehorn Mary J. Blige into the film as a depressing Jiminy Cricket type, guiding Sherrie through the uncomfortable world of adult entertainment.
Of course, everything comes to a head when Jaxx returns to the Bourbon Room, setting up a clash between the rockers and the moms, Gill and his various employees who wish to rock regardless of market reports, and the rekindling of a few romances. The only character really left out of the film’s happy ending—this despite her appearance in the closing song—is Blige’s, who is perhaps marginalized because she runs a strip club, portrayed here as a decidedly un-metal venue despite what literally every band from the era would have you believe. This was my biggest issue with Rock of Ages, that a musical so unashamed in its unabashed love of cheesy, decade-specific rock whitewashes hair metal’s darker, neanderthal impulses, positing one of its sleazy pillars as the domain of the ruined women, not the sex goddesses of music video lore. When Sherrie and Drew meet again having suffered what must have been days of despair at their respective jobs, Sherrie screams “I’m a stripper!” like that, somehow, is a worse, more distasteful fate than being one of Stacee Jaxx’s disposable women—as was the fate of most girls living out hair metal fantasies in the Men-and-Lita-Ford-only club of hair metal—or her eventual outcome, which is dressing in a far more sexual manner than the strippers at her particular club in front of far larger audiences.
I can perhaps be accused of overthinking a movie that takes “Jukebox Hero” up as a mantra, but one only needs to watch 15 minutes of any given Behind the Music on a band from the era to realize that, however fun drinking vodka while lounging on in inflatable raft in the middle of the Pool That Rock Built seems, 1987 is a particularly horrible year upon which to build a crowd-pleasing musical. Rock of Ages erects a cardboard Valhalla at best. It’s only shot is that the kids frolicking through its Candyland of greed and misogyny are likable enough to see us through. They’re not, though. Where Baldwin has a wig and Cruise has swagger, Hogue and Boneta don’t even seem to be trying to fit in.
Characters and relationships are built largely through production numbers, and the only sequence that really makes one forget that the movie is a multimillion dollar karaoke machine is Baldwin and Brand’s take on REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” which addresses the inherent clash between the era’s emphasis on masculinity and its love of spandex, hair spray, and body glitter. Were it not for its utterly cynical take on pretty much everything else, the scene may have worked on a higher level than a brief, humorous SNL sketch. Instead, it’s the best of many weak scenes where the characters are the opposite of their public persona—Stacee Jaxx is more tender than his Devil’s head codpiece suggests, the Rolling Stone author is a bigger sex-fiend than her lecturing and hairstyle let-on, the straight-laced mayor is turned-on by whips and chains, and his wife is only trying to kill rock and roll because its figurehead didn’t love her.
Rock of Ages wants you to believe so strongly in the power of rock music that it, like a pimply teen in his basement room, offers up its titanic soundtrack as an unholy sacrifice to an ultimately mind-numbing plot. You know the songs by heart, it figures, and will be compelled to sing along. However true that assumption is, the fact that an entire movie was made under those pretenses is the kind of awful, evil-hearted gamble credit card companies make when casting Alec Baldwin in their commercials. Yes, they know that you know you’re being screwed, but they figure you’ll go along with it if you’re smiling. Rock of Ages doesn’t have to work very hard for the languid, dreamy half-smile of nostalgia it earns, just as the music it enshrines didn’t exactly work hard at being music. In two hours, we’re given a very effective demonstration of what killed the vibe Rock of Ages tries so desperately not to harsh: bloat. Oddly, it’s kind enough to provide an idea of what the people who stand to profit most from this sort of bloat look like, and, for the most part, he’s having a much better time than the rest of us.
Rock of Ages. Directed by Adam Shankman. With Diego Boneta (Drew), Julianne Hough (Sherri), Tom Cruise (Stacee Jaxx), Alec Baldwin (Dennis Dupree), Russell Brand (Lonny), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Patricia Whitmore), Malin Akerman (Constance Sack), Mary J. Bilge (Justice Charlier), Paul Giamatti (Paul Gill), and Bryan Cranston (Mayor Whitmore). Released June 15, 2012, by Warner Bros.