Someone said to me, “but the Beatles were anti-materialistic.” That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say “now, let’s write a swimming pool.” Paul McCartney
Two thirteen year-old boys, major heavy metal fans, and therefore imagining a world where they’re best pals with, like Journey and Motley Crue, plus lots of pretty girls, but with a secret crush on the Christian girl in their math class, sat down to write the most awesome rock musical ever; Rock of Ages is what resulted. The same two guys grew up to become executive producers on Glee.
Finally saw Rock of Ages on Netflix, and it genuinely was as bad as I expected. But with movies, there’s bad and then there’s bad. Some bad movies are just pretentious and stupid and sad: Megan Fox in Passion Play comes to mind. Other bad movies, though, are kind of fun. I still remember with some fondness a double feature a friend and I saw sat through at a drive-in some 35 years ago. Kidnapped Coed and Hitchhike to Hell; movies of such all-encompassing crappiness they remain the ne plus ultra of B-movie drive-in fare.
So Rock of Ages is a musical about 80’s hair metal. Julianne Hough, the Utah girl from Dancing With the Stars, plays Sherrie Christian (the whole reason for her last name, far as I can tell, is so the musical can plausibly begin with Night Ranger’s anthem “Sister Christian”) a nice girl from Oklahoma who moves to LA to pursue fame and fortune. She meets a nice kid, Drew (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the Bourbon Club, a bar where Arsenal–you remember Arsenal, right?–got its start. (Hint: Arsenal actually never existed as a rock band, but should have–great name for a band. Not to mention an English soccer club).
The club’s manager, Dennis Dupress (Alec Baldwin) is barely keeping the place financially afloat, assisted by his irrepressible sidekick Lonnie (Russell Brand). But Arsenal has agreed to return, a free gig arranged by Arsenal’s ravaged lead singer, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), but reneged on by his oily manager afterwards, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti). (Apparently nobody in the ’80s music biz ever heard of contracts.) Before the concert, Stacee Jaxx gets interviewed by Rolling Stone Magazine’s perky young reporter, Constance Sack (Malin Ackerman), and falls in love with her. (The movie gets two whole songs out of one interview: “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “I wanna know what love is.”) Meanwhile, the Mayor of LA, Mike Whitmore, (Bryan Cranston) and his Christian anti-rock zealot wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are trying to shut the club down, citing the bad effect rock has on public morals.
See, it hits every cliche associated with rock music. Christians=bad (and hypocritical). The Man=bad. Young love=good. Agents and managers=bad. Rock stars=dangerous, but ultimately good. Rock represents freedom, liberation, healthy youth rebellion. At one point, Drew is signed by Paul Giamatti, and gets turned into a singer in a boy band; boy bands=bad. Justin Bieber (who he ends up sort of resembling)=bad. Selling out=the worst thing imaginable. Sherrie ends up working in a strip club run by Mary J. Blige. Mary J. Blige=good, but only for our heroine, when she’s told she needs to ‘believe in herself’ and ‘pursue her dreams’. All the other strippers, apparently, don’t have dreams. This leads to my favorite exchange in the movie. A chastened Drew and despondent Sherrie meet. Sherrie: “I’m a stripper in the Venus Club” “I’m in a boy band.” “You win.” See what I mean: boy bands are the worst. The worst.
Really, the entire movie is an extended episode of Glee, with worse singing and without Glee‘s occasional pro-gay social commentary. Just as Glee resembles no actual high school ever anywhere, so does Rock of Ages bear no resemblance to anything in any actual rock and world universe. In fact, the artificiality of the project is half its charm. There are some genuinely funny moments, in fact. When Stacee Jaxx first meets Constance Sack, the reporter, she’s wearing glasses. I laughed out loud. She’s basically the sexy librarian from every Van Halen video ever. You know it’s a matter of minutes before Stacee removes her glasses and musses her hair and starts licking her face.
And Tom Cruise is terrific in this thing. He’s got all the moves, the hip thrust, the snake dance, the kneeling guitar solo. And he really can sing. I’ve often felt that the greatest performance of his entire career was Frank Mackey, the cocksman self help guru, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Stacee Jaxx is Frank as rock star, but the self-mocking version. He has this pick-up line: he looks at the girl, and he says “I love your heart.” And then he places his hand on her heart. Which is to say, her left breast. Apparently it’s sure-fire. He also seems seriously and comically chemically impaired: hence this exchange with a Rolling Stone editor: Stacee: “I’m looking for Constance” “She’s not here. She’s at the Bourbon Club, covering the Stacee Jaxx concert tonight, opening his solo career.” “I have a gig tonight?”
Then he comes to the Club, and he sees Constance. He holds up a finger, then points to her. He walks resolutely towards her. He’s intercepted by a groupie, who begins kissing him. He keeps pointing at Constance, holding his finger up apologetically while giving this groupie these big open-mouth kisses. Like, ‘sorry, gotta deal with this, be with you in a second.’ Funny stuff.
The music’s sort of weird. All these metal standards, but often arranged in mash-ups with other rock songs. Catherine Zeta-Jones protests Stacee Jaxx’s concert; Russell Brand leads a group protesting the protest, and so they sing back and forth: “We built this city on rock and roll,” vs. “We’re not gonna take it.” At one point, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand sing “I can’t fight this feeling anymore” as a duet, finishing with a big lip-locked kiss. And the final anthem in the movie, the culminating Big Musical Number, involves the young lovers, Sherrie and Drew, and Stacee Jaxx, singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Also one of the big songs on Glee, as it happens. Not to mention every sports stadium in America.
Which is of course one of the weird things about this movie; the odd relationship it sorta kinda explores between rock music and commerce. “Selling out” (Drew joining a boy band) is considered a very bad thing. It’s constructed thus: an artist violating his muse, wasting his talent, giving up on the spirit of rock. Letting The Man (in this case Paul Giamatti) win. But most of the plot, such as it is, involves Alec Baldwin’s struggles financially, trying to keep his club open. And Drew and Sherrie want, well, to perform, to sing, to practice their craft, but also to achieve fame and, yes, fortune. Stacee Jaxx wants true love, but he also likes being surrounded by pretty female groupies, because he can afford to maintain them.
Mick Jagger had a degree in economics from the London School of Economics, and the Beatles were tremendously market-savvy, and Bob Dylan (tortured artist supreme) hated no one more than Albert Grossman, who he thought ripped him off to the point that he wrote several songs about it. To survive, Sherrie (who I guess sort of functions as the film’s protagonist, to the extent that it has one), has to sell out by wearing skimpy outfits and writhing sexily in a strip club, but at the end, she wins, she’s Saved . . . by singing with her boyfriend, writhing sexily on-stage in a skimpy outfit. Female commodification and objectification=bad. Female sexist commodification in the service of rock music=good. Of course.
Rock of Ages is a big budget Hollywood movie, based on a big budget Broadway musical, that seeks to profit financially by exploiting the nostalgic love people have for a certain style of rock music that’s considered old-fashioned today. And that pats itself on the back for its fidelity to the rock ideals of freedom and rebellion and anti-commercialism. And that mocks anti-rock crusaders for their hypocrisy. I’m not, I promise, offended by the ironic crassness of this movie’s supposed ideals. I thought it was hilarious. It’s too ludicrous a movie to fulminate against. But you sure could.
Rock music is about finding a musical style people might like enough to pay money to listen to. Maybe, occasionally, it succeeds in communicating something more exalted than that. It’s nice when that happens. Meanwhile, if you liked the hair metal era, and thought Def Leppard was an awesome band, you might enjoy a movie in which your favorite music is performed reasonably well. That turned out to be enough fun for me.