Rock of Ages eventually ends, but that doesn’t change the fact that enduring it feels like eternal torture. Adam Shankman’s adaptation of Chris D’Arienzo’s Broadway musical marks the point at which an authentically happy past is finally and irrevocably sullied beyond repair, with that history being, in this instance, ‘80s hair metal and the hedonistic scene that birthed and nurtured it on and around L.A.‘s Sunset Strip. Shankman’s film is a bastardization of an age, and if that debasement of its subject into campy kitsch is the unavoidable fate of all culturally dangerous art, that doesn’t make it any less palatable. Rarely has a movie so misunderstood the things it purports to celebrate, distorting the then-edgy songs of Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, and Night Ranger (with virtually each number mashing up two memorable tunes) into low-rent Glee-style karaoke monstrosities, stripped of the authentic emotion that made them work in the first place. Admittedly, Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” were glam-metal cheese even in 1987, the time frame of this misbegotten venture. Yet they weren’t nearly as toothless and ridiculous as they are here, transformed—in a manner in harmony with the religious anti-rock agenda of villain Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones)—into empty bombast neutered of the very sex-drugs-and-anarchy spirit that defined them and their appetite-for-destruction era.
Guns N’ Roses is merely one of the myriad victims of Rock of Ages, which mimics that band’s “Welcome to the Jungle” video in its intro conceit of small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) exiting a bus from Oklahoma in Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign looming over her shoulder. Sherrie quickly gets a job at Whiskey A Go Go-inspired the Bourbon Room courtesy of bartender Drew (Diego Boneta), who shares her dream of rock-singer stardom. They work for Dennis (Alec Baldwin), whose main narrative purpose is to sing duets with “colorful” right-hand man Lonny (Russell Brand) until they finally croon “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” in an unbridled expression of their oh-so-funny gay love. As the Bourbon Room is in deep tax trouble, Dennis pins his business’s hope for survival on the farewell performance of notorious, perpetually drunk Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a bad-boy icon about to leave his band Arsenal for a solo career. That path, however, is complicated by his greedy, weasely manager Paul (Paul Giamatti) and pesky Rolling Stone reporter Constance (Malin Åkerman), who shows up in hot-for-teacher glasses and is soon spreading her legs for Stacee on his dressing room pool table while joining him in a lousy rendition of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Cruise has the spotlight magnetism to make the caricature that is Jaxx—who wears a shiny devil mask over his crotch and has a sidekick baboon named “Hey Man”—seem at least BIG, which is more than can be said of Boneta and Hough, two pipsqueak screen presences whose lip-syncing and posing is average and whose actual acting ability is only slightly more nuanced than that of a guitar amplifier. Shankman doesn’t do them any favors with one overwrought montage after another, and he completely squanders both Bryan Cranston (as Patricia’s L.A. mayor husband) and the few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them ‘80s icon cameos. Then again, that’s indicative of a film that treats plot and character as secondary concerns, and where the front-and-center songs are uniformly over-produced, underwhelming, and inferior to their originals. Never is that more apparent than Cruise’s version of “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which ups the goofy bad-boy bravado of Bon Jovi’s seminal tune to the point of outright cartoonishness. And yet despite that extremeness, Rock of Ages is never funny or clever; rather, it’s just back-pattingly pleased with its own self-conscious love of hair metal and its employment of it in a PG-13 musical—which, with its avoidance of lewdness or menace, plays like a nightmarishly nostalgic amusement-park ride.
Thus, when Sherrie turns to stripping as a means of making a living, a profession equated with toughness by the establishment’s owner (Mary J. Blige, in pseudo-Egyptian outfits), the dancers are all fully clothed, lest the proceedings tip into actual raunchy-rock territory. Meanwhile, Zeta-Jones’s villainess proves to be a closet freak whose crusade really stems from her desire to suppress her own groupie urges, a twist that’s as broad as the actress’s strident performance. So misshapen is Rock of Ages that, after Cruise suffers through a journalist’s accusatory interview and then later participates in a multi-character, multi-location sing-along, it begins to resemble a surreal Magnolia minus the sincere pathos and awash in period-piece shtick, culminating with Drew temporarily selling out by agreeing to be in a New Kids on the Block-type boy band (the apparent epitome of crassness). “Don’t Stop Believing” closes things out in predictably overblown fashion, in the process providing an ironic closing note for a film that, when not creating an overpowering desire to be divorced from one’s senses, makes one stop believing in pop culture’s ability to create something new—or, even, something tolerably derivative from something old.