Directed by Adam Shankman. Screenplay by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb; based upon the stage musical by Chris D’Arienzo. Produced by Jennifer Gibgot, Garrett Grant, Carl Levin, Tobey Maguire, Scott Prisand, Adam Shankman. Photographed by Bojan Bazelli. Edited by Emma E. Hickox. Production designed by Jon Hutman. Starring Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston.
Rock of Ages is a movie musical that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s stupid, loud, shallow, callow, ugly, frequently disgusting and–on occasion–downright hateful. Ironically, when it’s not being those things, it’s obsessed with being the squarest movie musical you could possibly see, yoking itself to a plot so ancient and predictable that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would have been rolling their eyes in 1939. And if you think you’ve heard the story before, that goes doubly so for the music, which is a compilation of 80’s rock hits, integrated none too cleverly and performed none too well, like a karaoke night that only begins after everyone has finished drinking. It’s all based on a 2006 Broadway show that, from what I hear, is campy, funny, fun, and worth your money. So then it’s official. This is not a faithful adaptation.
The movie is “inspired” by the glam/punk/hard rock scene of 1980’s LA, but it feels more inspired by both weary romance clichés and lame jokes about the 1980s. Because, guysguysguys listen…cell phones…were HUGE back then. Get it? And the hair? Crazy! Ho ho ho. They played arcade games! Funny! And everyone bought LPs! Isn’t that funny? How funny is that? Soooo funny. The songs are cynically programmed to play to our sense of nostalgia, not our affections, and everything is dialed up to 11, except for the coherency, which is brought to a 0. The whole package is designed to exploit fortysomethings who miss the 80’s, but no forty-year-old would accept a plot or characters this insipid, so essentially the movie is for no one.
For a heroine, we get Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough, who is basically a Hayden Panettiere lookalike). Sherrie’s precious suitcase that contains nothing but Twisted Sister records and the like is stolen mere minutes after she arrives in LA. Yes, her single suitcase that is apparently only crammed with records. Uh-huh. She comes from Oklahoma, she wants to be a singer, she’s been mugged and has no money, she meets a cute guy, Drew (Diego Boneta), and Drew gets her a job as a waitress at The Bourbon Room, a super-popular rock club that looks like the half-Disney version of the Viper Room where everyone has a “funny” personality and no one’s snorting cocaine in the bathroom. Meanwhile, Diego is a musician and wants to be in a band, and both of them are ecstatic about meeting rock star Stacey Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who is visiting the Bourbon Room as part of his farewell tour.
Okay. Let’s say we know where this is going. Let’s say we predict the following: Sherrie and Drew will fall in love. They’ll coo at each other with loving words that help to spell out their love of rock. They’ll idolize the R-rated glam lifestyle but have PG-13 rated sex, followed by G-rated cuddling. They’ll both meet Stacey Jaxx and be utterly disillusioned by what a mealy-mouthed, drugged-out, womanizing, hard-drinking worm he is. Rock! Through a wacky misunderstanding, Drew will believe Sherrie has been unfaithful, and he will turn mean and angry, which will get him a contract with a skeevy sell-out producer (Paul Gimatti). Sherrie, spurned, will quit her job and hit the skids. This is so not rock. But the lovebirds will later reconcile and perform onstage at the Bourbon Room as a duet, while Stacey Jaxx, galvanized by the pair’s love of great music, becomes a new man. And…rock! If you’ve figured out these things will happen before the movie gets to them, then congratulations. You’ve seen a movie before.
Roger Ebert once coined the term “idiot plot,” referring to any story that would cease to have complications if every character stopped being an idiot and actually said something sensible. Rock of Ages has idiot plot gridlock. In addition to the banal romance, there’s plenty of other subplots fighting for screen time, all populated by morons. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand play co-owners of the Bourbon Room, and they’re hard-drinking, skuzzy weirdos who are threatened with losing their business and, frankly, deserve to, based on how shoddily they run it (this plotline patiently waits for all the others to clear before progressing each iota, as if the movie realizes we don’t care if the Bourbon Room is bought and turned into a Wall-Mart). Stacey Jaxx, who has long disappeared into the black hole of his own ego, is enlivened by the presence of a mousy Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman), who asks softball “tough” questions and then takes off her glasses and lets down her hair, so we can see how sexy she is when she should probably be saying “no, please don’t touch me.” You know, like a smart person would.
And Catherine Zeta-Jones, who already impressed us with her musical chops in Chicago, is the super-conservative wife of the Los Angeles mayor (Bryan Cranston), who is a closeted horny freak involved in a sweaty affair with an aide who doubles as an S & M mistress (this, by the way, has nothing to do with anything else in the movie). Zeta-Jones wants to rally the nice churchgoers of LA into razing the Burbon Room, in a motivation stolen straight from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, while Cranston and his mistress get frisky in the next room, because all conservatives are dirty perverts, donchaknow, ha ha ha. Zeta-Jones even gets her own belated turn with that trope, for no stereotype will be left un-reaffirmed. Nothing on Earth will prepare you for the moment when Cranston, bent over a pool table and stripped to his underwear, is spanked with a ruler, making cartoonish faces while the film intercuts between him and the church wives squealing out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
Yes, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical, so called because all the songs are pilloried from classics of the past, in this case the joint catalogs of Foreigner, Journey, Pat Benetar, Bon Jovi, and others, so that the characters bare their empty souls to the tune of previous pop hits. Sure must be easy to write a musical when you don’t have to bother with writing the music. The selections are chosen for their period iconography and not their content, so sometimes you have to just plain ignore the lyrics in order to pretend this song has anything to do with what these characters are thinking, doing, or believing. Other times, the movie twists itself into knots in order to build runway for another familiar song to land. (Example: Sherrie’s last name is Christian, solely so the movie can begin with “Sister Christian.”) It’s kind of like an episode of Glee, except the characters are inconsistent and poorly-written, the dialogue is lousy, the jokes aren’t funny, the themes are suspect… It’s exactly like an episode of Glee.
I don’t like jukebox musicals because they’re crass, cynical commercial products, and because they’re typically told with little grace or care. And I especially don’t like this jukebox musical, with the way it attacks each number and then backs down into the sincere “reality” of the story, as if we give a rat’s ass. It actually gets kind of hilarious at times. At one point in a Tower Records, Drew belts out an over-the-top, dancing-on-the-racks-and-in-the-aisles-and-shaking-the-rafters rendition of Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero.” Then he gets down and is asked why he never performs at the club. “I get stage fright,” he says. Yeah. Sure. Or how about the scene where Sherrie and Drew have a date at the Hollywood sign, and he sings for her. “Just a little thing I’m workin’ on,” he says. He sings a verse or two. It’s…why…it’s Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Oh my God! He stops. “Don’t stop,” she says. “I can’t believe you wrote that.” Me neither. You want to know why? Because he fucking didn’t.
The movie is shrill, obnoxious, joyless, unfunny, aimless, and doesn’t know when to say when. Part of that’s due to the selfish, tone-deaf cherry-picking of the songs; Rock of Ages has never met a power ballad it didn’t wish to exploit, and so it uses every single one, and institutes a stultifying sameness. Rock of Ages is all over-the-top, all the time, and it’s exhausting. The editing is frenetic, but has a push-button pseudo-authenticity, as if working from a “how to cut a modern musical and still clock out on time” handbook. None of the songs really function as anything other than placeholders for beats that everyone is too lazy to dramatize, and it takes a special type of audacity to screw up a basic rock classic like “I Love Rock and Roll,” so bravo to Rock of Ages for doing that, by melding it with “Jukebox Hero” in a way that completely guts its soul. And isn’t it really trite to play “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” over a bad breakup? Is the rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” that Brand and Baldwin croon supposed to be funny? Oh, and the movie climaxes with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” because, yeah. That never gets old.
But what really bothers me with Rock of Ages is how aggresively sleazy it is. It’s vulgarity tries to be transgressive, fails, and ends up just wallowing in cheap vulgarity, so much so that it’s proudest joke is when the screenplay gets Alec Baldwin to exclaim: “I just threw up. In my pants. It came from my ass.” And it glorifies a fast-living, hard rock lifestyle with no appreciable irony, and it’s got a mean sexist streak that derails any potential “fun.” To illustrate, let’s get back to Malin Akerman, who lets herself get seduced by Stacey Jaxx in an embarrassing scene of empty, shallow titillation, culminating with both of them in their underwear, spent, in a depiction that is sure to win the heart of Rolling Stone magazine. Needless to say, she becomes a Stacey Jaxx groupie immediately, because all cold women need is a good lay and they’ll melt like butter. In their final shot, the two embrace in a bathroom, and hit a dispenser full of condoms, which pile on top of their heads. It’s gross.
Grosser still: when Sherrie quits her waitressing job and wanders the streets of LA, she finds herself in a strip club, waiting tables and eventually graduating to star performer, the benefits of which are heralded in a cheerful rendition of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It,” complete with the dancers stamping their heels in support. Because, yes, Rock of Ages, Sherrie becoming a stripper is an event that needs its very own anthem of pseudo-empowerment, played without a trace—not a trace—of irony. Granted, the film does undercut this with some later disappointment on Sherrie’s part about how her life has turned out, but the effort is meek, and the primary message comes through loud and clear. In a PG-13 musical that a lot of young girls might see, is this necessary? Not to be outdone, the way Zeta-Jones’ story is wrapped up is similarly demeaning, because in this movie being a woman means being a hypocrite, a bimbo, or worse—a bimbo who thinks she isn’t one.
You’d think Cruise could save the picture, for he is a movie star through and through. But no, he basically plays Johnny Depp playing Tom Cruise playing Stacey Jaxx, and the lack of energy (coupled with some moments of play-it-the-cheap-seats faux-energy) is deadening. Baldwin, who can be a very funny man, is given nothing to play except awful punchlines (the worst of which is his third-act liplock with…Russell Brand). Giamatti’s role stops at his gum-chewing and creepy eyebrows, and Zeta-Jones overacts as the stuck-up wife with the dirty secret. The one bright spot is Brand, who delivers the only “funny” joke in the movie (speculating on the practices of Stacey Jaxx) that I actually thought was legitimately funny; it feels fresh and creative, as if Brand is breaking the shackles of the awful material and improvising, right before he’s wrestled to the ground again like King Kong.
As for relative newcomers Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, they’re charisma vacuums. That’s not really the fault of the actors, but more a reflection that no one could breathe life into these wheezy roles, no matter how talented. Sherrie (a waitress who serves one drink during the film, always have days off and never has money problems past the opening scene) walks through her own idiot plot while Drew walks parallel, and none of them do anything smart or plausible, because this is a movie that does not care what actual human beings would ever do. The moment where Drew misinterprets something as evidence that Sherrie and Stacey have slept together feels like it came from a Three’s Company episode, and that’s about half a decade too late for the period, guys. The director is Adam Shankman, who made Hairspray. I liked that musical. He has not repeated his success.
The movie is not fun, ever. It’s a cynical, brainless, turgid exercise in counterfeit nostalgia. I’ve seen a lot of musicals. I love musicals. So I say with great sadness that Rock of the Ages is one of the worst movie musicals I’ve seen in a long time. And it closes the book on the decade that was the 80’s: after much uncertainty about whether or not they were cool, Rock of Ages now irrevocably proves that they were not at all cool, and never will be cool again. Children of the 80’s, do not see this picture. It’ll have its way with you and then leave you embarrassed and hung over. Or worse, it’ll make you sell your Styx collection on Ebay, and then never look back.