Rock of Ages hits theaters this week, a safe, sterilized elegy to the over-the-top hair metal of the ‘80s. Rock of Ages contains all of the stupidity and cheesiness of the ‘80s but none of the gross excesses and none of the fun. This muddled mess of a musical won’t win over any new converts, and it will likely turn off die hard fans.
The story follows Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) as she takes her first step on the road to rock stardom, arriving in Los Angeles on a bus hailing from Tulsa, Oklahoma—all the wannabe Hollywood stars seem to come from Tulsa. She meets wannabe rocker Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job waitressing in a dive run by Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand. Baldwin and Brand are preparing to host the final performance of the fictitious band Arsenal, headed by front man Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and represented by a Hollywood scumbag super producer (Paul Giamatti, almost stealing the entire movie here). This particular fantasy envisions a world where virtually all of the hits of late ‘70s and ‘80s were written and performed by Stacee Jaxx , a loopy, booze-and-sex addicted narcissist likely inspired by Axl Rose. Meanwhile, an ice cold church matriarch (Catherine Zeta Jones) and her philandering husband (the fantastic Bryan Crantson) plot to take the club down.
I’m sure I’m missing another half dozen or so subplots buried within Rock of Ages. It almost goes without saying that the story is all over the place. And yet, that’s entirely understandable: This story conforms to dozens of songs from various, unconnected artists, unlike Singin’ in the Rain (the absolute greatest musical ever made) where the music was written to support to the story. It therefore makes sense that subplots and characters would necessarily be devised just to accommodate one or two musical numbers. But even taking that into consideration, Rock of Ages still misses the mark.
I consider myself a child of the ‘90s, so I kind of missed the boat on ‘80s hair metal- Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins are more my thing. Yet, I still kind of understand the appeal of Def Leppard and Journey and their ilk: They were dumb, they were sleazy, and they were fun. For one brief period in the ‘80s rock n’ roll didn’t have to be about poetry or art or suffering. Rock music could just unabashedly be about getting drunk and getting laid. Somehow the creators of the musical and the makers of this movie failed to understand that appeal.
Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta play the star-crossed lovers of this story, and they’re young, clean-cut, attractive, and talented. They look wholesome and they sing like American Idol finalists…which is actually a problem. Part of the charm of the hair metal bands of the ‘80s was that they all looked grimy and filthy, and their lead singers often sounded like a cat being strangled with piano wire. The songs all bore imperfections combined with a raw energy. The roughness and imperfections made the music infectious.
Hough and Boneta, however, look and sound like they should be harmonizing Disney tunes together, not belting out power ballads from Whitesnake and Poison. They look and sound like Broadway stars, not bar-crawling rockers. Likewise, all of the musical covers in this movie are completely polished and glossy. The filmmakers have refined the musical numbers so much that they sound like show tunes rather than covers of ‘80s rock songs; all of the grit and power has been siphoned away.
And that gloss extends to the entire production; everything is bright, colorful, and clean. For instance, the club run by Alec Baldwin’s aging rocker is the cleanest, most well-lit rock venue I’ve ever seen. Every sequence looks like it is was filmed on a movie set. Nothing feels lived in or real. Rock of Ages is a largely family friendly homage to a genre of music that was created for the sole purpose of enraging middle aged stiffs. There’s something almost sacrilegious about it.
Tom Cruise desperately tries to save the movie. In the role of Stacee Jaxx, Cruise preserves some of the fun and sleaze off the period through his spaced-out, yet completely sincere, performance. The best musical number in the entire film occurs when Cruise undresses Malin Ackerman, shoves her onto a pool table, and sings “I Want to Know What Love Is” directly into her crotch as if it were a microphone. The number has an odd authenticity to it, probably because I could imagine some idiot actually making a music video like that in the ‘80s.
But Cruise’s inspired lunacy is not enough to save Rock of Ages. As the movie draws to a close one of the characters exclaims defiantly, “Rock will never die.” Well, rock is dead. And while Rock of Ages didn’t kill it—Nickelback did—this is another nail in the coffin.