Rock and Roll has a long, checkered history on film; in part, I suspect, it's because the anarchic rebel heart of rock can't really be subsumed or captured by Hollywood's embrace of the most "conventional" conventions. So much of what defines pop culture - the very structures of our popular entertainments - are the hoariest notions of storytelling enshrined onscreen. From HIgh School Confidential to The Girl Can't Help It, through Help! and the counterculture apex of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, into the seventies era morass of Streisand's A Star Is Born and Midler's Rose.... Hollywood's history is littered with attempts to use "rock" as a way to give voice to a "youth culture" as a way to challenge a "status quo" that fails on all counts.
If Rock of Ages is a dreadful dud - and it's surely one of the most dreadful, duddiest attempts out there - it would be a mistake
to isolate it as a lone example of the "rock musical" gone bad. "Rock musicals" are, in fact, generally problematic, the good ones (I'd say, well, Hair... and then what? Grease?) not so far from the bad, and all struggling with, as I said, trying to square a circle of presenting youthful rebellion in a clean, neat Hollywood package.
Sloppy and lazy, Rock of Ages pulls together a fairly random set of eighties "rock" songs, packages them up with a fairly limp familiar plotline of "I wanna be a star!" and flails around in search of a conclusion. Originally created for the theater, Rock of Ages - still running - is mostly a tired excuse to pull in kids my age with a vaguely familiar soundtrack of songs from our youth, packing them in even if, under even mild examination, the show is illiterate and incoherent. One of the most obvious problems is the show's soundtrack, which vaguely assembles eighties "hair metal" songs, a genre which, I'd argue, isn't really a genre at all: the real story of the eighties is how the notion of "rock" splintered apart after a seventies era apex of Album-oriented rock (AOR, in radio parlance) and hard rock ubiquitousness. By the mid-eighties, "rock" was, in many ways, nearly dead, with hair metal and other sub-genres simply serving as the dead end for diehards - who, it could be noted, amount to a white working class of mostly men holding out against the resurgence of dance and urban music that was really changing the face of pop.
That whitneness is a large chunk of Rock of Ages' dilemma onscreen, only partially solved by the late appearance of Mary J. Blige, in what appears to be the show's second act. By then we've been introduced to Sherri, a young aspiring singer who leaves Oklahoma to come to LA and pursue her dream. She quickly gets mugged (this happens in more Broadway shows than you might think), and meets her male counterpart, also an aspiring singer who works in The Bourbon Room, a larger scale club space that has a long history of launching and promoting up and coming rock acts. Drew, the young man, brings Sherri to the cliub, gets her a job, and the two begin a fairly conventional romance. The club, meanwhile, under pressure from Moral Majority types, is struggling to stay in the black, and the owner pins his hopes on a desperate plan to revive the club's fortunes with a concert by popular band Arsenal, fronted by the charismatic, yet odd, Stacee Jaxx.
Tom Cruise, as you may have heard, plays Stacee Jaxx, and the performance is, by now, classic Cruise: a true movie star, Cruise may not be the strongest actor, but he plays Tom Cruise really, really well, and to the extent that Stacee Jaxx works, it's because Cruise exudes the star quality needed to pull it off. Say what you will, but Cruise has never been one to just phone it in, and he's not starting now. There's an intensity and determination to his performance that goes a long way to lifting this material above where it might be otherwise, and Cruise deserves credit, as he did in Magnolia, with proving that he's at his best, often, in these supporting roles where he can dare to be less than entirely likable.
But Cruise is no singer, and it shows. As much as he swaggers and stomps through his backstage drama, once he's onstage as Jaxx, Cruise's studied approach to "Rock God" reveals his limitations. Compare Cruise, for instance, to Blige, and the contrast is obvious: Blige, as usual, inhabits her singing with a passion that's almost impossible to bottle. Cruise, by contrast, gives the impression of moving across the stage, striking pose after pose, vaguely reminding us of other stars (Jagger, Tyler... you know the drill), without a real feel for how these stars found their stage presences in the songs they sang. It doesn't make him a failure in the part, but it's a reminder, however subtle, that Cruise is, in some ways, enitirely miscast in this role, struggling to make it work.
Much of the casting is similarly head scratching: actors with no real musical background, like Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Paul Giamati (who makes the film's irredeemable villain so irredeemable as to be a cartoon), against more traditional musical theater types like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, and more rock and radio based types like Blige and Russell Brand. That the musical theater types fare best (CZJ, however thankless her role is as the uptight antirocker, can't hide her ways with a good number) gives away the game that for all its claims to a rock and roll heart, Rock of Ages is grounded, really, in terribly conventional musical theater cliches: this is a showbiz, backstage musical with "rock songs" where 42nd Street should be, which goes a long way towards explaining why it doesn't really work.
As the young leads, Hough and Boneta are pretty enough - too pretty, really, on both counts - but they're both saddled with some of the worst of this film's material, particularly Boneta, mouthing words to Foreigner and Journey songs that seem, in context, like gibberish. Hough, as she demonstrated in the Footloose remake, is tougher and smarter than the limited, good girl in trouble business she has to put over here. Her character's hardest choice is going from waitress to stripper, and Hough radiates the kind of unreality that she's too sweet to get too jaded from it all, but even she's too smart to buy it.
The film struggles, really with the challenge of being "Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll" while being the more PG-13 "Smooches, Occasional Drinking and Pop Rock" family friendly alternative. No one in the movie gets stoned, never mind the odd absence of coke or heroin, even in an ostensible mess like Stacee Jaxx (Cruise is no one's idea of a hardcore alcoholic, no matter how he strolls around, scotch bottles in hand). And while the film pants with a kind of soft porn leeriness, the sexual situations are mostly tame, even in an obvious over the top number like the version of "I Want to Know What Love Is" that Jaxx sings while laying Malin Akermann's patently unbelievable Rolling Stone reporter on the back room pool table. Raunchy sex never had it so sad.
Most everything is this film is a pale carbon of other, not necessarily better, but still more committed rock films. Mark Wahberg, I think, can rest easy knowing that his own turn in Rock Star - along with Jennifer Aniston's - has more heft than anything Hough or Boneta can produce. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is way more true to the seventies era ethos of groupie/rock god, Rolling Stone excess than anything here. Blige's turn as a strip club owner with a heart of gold is essentially Cher's role in Burlesque, and both women have the star power to exceed weak material, but even Burlesque feels more ultimately authentic than anything Rock of Ages can conjure.
Perhaps most weirdly, the flm can't shake the odd homoerotic undertone of its material; there's a whole lot of creepy male bonding on display here, too much crotch level interest in the men's leather pants to be ignored (Cruise, ever the tease, can't resist parading around in codpiece, jockstrap and assless chaps, and even his twin gun tats aimed at crotch level are really gay porn iconography). The film's cringiest, yet oddly sublime scene has Baldwin's club owner finally admitting his dirty desires for Brand, as the club's manager, to the tune of "Can't Fight This Feeling" the REO Speedwagon tune rock fans are most likely to call "That's so gay." That Brand has the verve to do the number in his best Freddie Mercury impression only adds to the subtlety, and to his credit, Baldwin is actor enough to sbubsume his "straight stud" history and commit to the moment at hand.
Fundamentally, though, that psychotic number is, in a nutshell, all the Vegas-y, trashy incoherence that sums up everything wrong with Rock of Ages: the wrong material, the wrong performers, the wrong (and false) emotional notes (as a runner up, among a "hard to choose just one" field, let's nominate Blige's strip club ode to "Any Way You Want It"). Director Adam Shankman can't begin to find a sustaining tone for this material, veering between satire, leaden humor, and melodrama without ever touching passion, intensity or ecstasy in any real way. Shankman managed to make sense of all of this with Hairspray (and try not to imagine how Blige could have steamrolled the Queen Latifah role there, either), but that just underlines where pop rock conventions and Hollywood work best in familar frames. Rock of Ages can either fit in the box and be denuded of its real danger and pathos... or it can soar. This film decidedly doesn't, with it's feet firmly on the floor, however strewn with used beer cans.
Finally, this film deserves two final slaps: one for the shoddy score, which is too lazy to include either Def Leppard's title track or Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie", despite the obvious references to the lead character. Too many of the numbers smash together incongruous pairings (Harden My Heart and Shadows of the Night? We're Not Gonna Take It and We Built This City?), and find little musical payoff. Too many of the songs, especially the Foreigner material, turn out to be full of weak lyrics (making Mick Jones his generation's Jerry Herman, I think). Even the moments that work - especially Cruise's actorly reading of "Pour Some Sugar on Me," which was already all about sex, but becomes all about sex and Tom Cruise - have a sleazy obviousness that's trite. And yet more insulting, if that's possible, is the sleazy costuming which make the eighties look even worse than we all might remember them - from Zeta Jones' ill fitting suits to Hough's hooker streetwear, to Boneta and Cruise in tight jeans and nothing to the imagination tops, this film makes a whole era into a sleazy looking cartoon. And that, I suspect, is its real point. Hot and sticky sweet... those used to be good things. I swear.