The best thing about Rock of Ages is perhaps that it’s made it easy to stick a broad pop cultural pin onto a variety of music I generally don’t enjoy. I’m a child of the 80’s, but I didn’t do my growing up in that decade, and the songs of ‘hair-bands’ aren’t the sounds of my nostalgia. Hell, they’re not even the songs I immediately associate with the decade. Instead, they’re a form of arena jock rock that I associate with crummy bars and gym teacher mixtapes. Journey makes me stop believin’, if you will. Still, if you put them in a frothy, glammed-up musical, I should be able to learn how to love them. I mean, this kid really enjoyed Mamma Mia and is guilty as charged on counts of actually having seen the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You. I’m a willing participant in over-the-top campy displays of glitter, hairspray, fishnets and cheese. Yet, both incarnations of Rock of Ages have left me rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth. You’d think after taking in the stage version I’d have taken a pass on the film, but I was convinced a movie would be able to find the right pitch, gel all the elements, and have sugar rush fun with the clashing absurdity. Somehow, though, they messed the whole thing up. Where the Broadway version managed to gleefully camp itself up to a poppy crescendo, the film is so mind-numbingly disjointed that at times it becomes hard to watch.
It’s a variation on a story we know well, and one we’ve seen most recently in Burlesque: a small town girl moves to Los Angeles with a song in her heart and wide-eyed country ambition, winds up working at a bar, falling in love, and getting to dance about as she follows her dream. The girl in question is Julianne Hough’s Sherrie Christian (GET IT? GET IT? I feel a song coming on…), the bar is a struggling Sunset Strip temple of rock called The Bourbon Room, and the boy is feathery haired rocker-wannabe named Drew (Diego Boneta). They bus tables, they listen to records, they fall head over heels in the time it takes to play a Foreigner song. The love story becomes the forced glue designed to hold together a larger narrative about a dwindling demand for glam metal, the rise of hip-hop and manufactured pop, the battles between venues and record companies, the battles between uptight politicians and demonic rock, and how completely Kurtzian Axl Rose-channeling Stacee Jaxx has become. All of these things are potentially far more interesting than the superficial attractions of two servers, but somehow Sherrie & Drew are the main attraction. It’s a shame, because without them we could have had something.
Before you say a damn thing: it’s clear that the entire cast is ‘in’ on the joke. There’s absolutely no question as to whether or not Rock of Ages was ever built to be taken seriously. The dialogue is made of groan-worthy one-liners, Tom Cruise’s rock god Stacee Jaxx leers a little too long and hard with every syllable, the outfits are comically cliché, and the characters are developed only to introduce another sparkling, riff-filled 80’s hit. Everyone knows that what they’re involved with is just supposed to be something that makes people happy, and in that respect I suppose it succeeds. Rock of Ages was an enjoyable enough viewing experience, but mostly because I enjoyed tearing it apart as I was watching it. Everything is a little off about the film. The timing of most of the jokes fall flat, the High School Musical Kids did a better job delivering their cheeky lines than Hough and Boneta, and the transitions into the songs are so god awful forced it’s hard not to throw your arms up when Catherine Zeta-Jones jumps straight into “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as her fired-up sermon to the moral militia or Mary J. Blige delivers a single off-key sentence before introducing Sherrie to stripper life with the inappropriately upbeat “Any Way You Want It”. Flat out: half of the songs don’t make sense in context. Where a film like Moulin Rouge! used recognizable pop music to its advantage, mashed it up, changed the tone, and allowed the song to add to the scene, Rock of Ages seems to have built the musical around the songs and often times winds up desperately searching for a chance to squeeze in ONE MORE instead of spending time developing the new element it just introduced. Basically: they threw the whole Velveeta block into the microwave and melted it down into this giant, greasy, slippery mess of bubbling burnt artifice and somehow we’re supposed to find it appetizing as it leaks out over the counter. It’s like some sort of musical stomach flu that causes all sorts of uncontrollable sing-songing without ever allowing its characters to have a moment of meaning.
If you see Rock of Ages you should arrive without expectations. Make some popcorn, tear open a bag of gummy worms, then sit back and wait for the vacuum. As you watch, ponder these probing questions: 1. Was Tom Cruise’s nose always half the size of his head? 2. When Tom Cruise tries to look sexy, has he always looked like he’s about to kill someone? 3. What is going on with Tom Cruise’s torso? He’s thin, but not, muscular, but not, it’s like his rib cage is overtaking his body, right? 4. Is Alec Baldwin conscious? 5. Who decided Julianne Hough should be a thing? 6. Why is Julianne Hough so orange? 7. Did they hire her because she’s like Christina Aguilera without the talent? 8. If I think this movie is silly and I don’t really like this music, then why do I want to have a party where the dress code is exactly this? 9. Wait, didn't Catherine Zeta-Jones win an Oscar for doing this kind of thing once? 10. Why is Catherine Zeta-Jones doing this one? Deep thoughts. Deep thoughts.