Rock of Ages Posits Hair Metal as Something Un-awful

Corporate rock still sucks

Rock of Ages, a new star-clogged pop-musical diversion, is a cinematic event. It's not every day, after all, that you get to see two great American traditions—guitar/bass/drums rock music and Tin Pan Alley musical theater—so thoroughly, mutually degraded.

This mess originated as a stage production, first performed in Los Angeles in 2006, from which it spread to Broadway, the West End, and the known universe beyond. Like Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys, it belongs to the species that has been dubbed the "jukebox musical," in which a group of licensed pop songs are strung together to create a ready-made musical score. This practice of steering a story between preexistent tunes effectively guarantees that the songs cannot grow from the plot organically, while challenging the author of the book to invent the pretext of a narrative setting in which to imbed the numbers.

In the case of Rock of Ages, the foundations that a story must be built upon are an afternoon of VH1 Classics' worth of 1980s hair metal. The original author of the stage show, Chris D'Arienzo, is joined for the screenplay by Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, and they have together drafted something that combines elements of Menahem Golan's The Apple, Empire Records, the Guns N' Roses video for "Welcome to the Jungle," and Tipper Gore's '80s career as politician's wife and PMRC scold.

Cruise, Jaxxing off
Warner Bros. Pictures
Cruise, Jaxxing off
Cruise, inspiring protests
Warner Bros. Pictures
Cruise, inspiring protests
Baldwin and Brand make up a mostly motley crue.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Baldwin and Brand make up a mostly motley crue.

It's West Hollywood, 1987, and a bus pulls up to a corner to disgorge . . . not Axl Rose with the hayseed's straw sticking out of his mouth, but Dancing With the Stars mainstay Julianne Hough, here playing Sherrie, a girl from Tulsa dreaming of the big time as a frontwoman. Instead, she gets her suitcase stolen and ends up waiting tables at the Bourbon Room thanks to the intervention of young Drew (Diego Boneta), who we know is destined for Sherrie, as he shares her scruffily clean-cut looks, her wide-eyed Jukebox Hero aspirations, and is, like her, staggeringly dull.

Even this safe haven is not, however, safe. "Taxes, they're so un-rock 'n' roll," Bourbon owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) sighs, faced with a money-crunch deadline as the mayor's Tipper-esque anti-rock crusader wife, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), scrutinizes the Bourbon's fudged books, looking for any excuse to shut the place down as part of her "Clean Up the Strip" initiative. Dennis's Hail Mary solution is corralling back Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), former Bourbon mainstay turned decadent, dissipated, and totally unreliable arena rocker, for a one-off benefit show.

Cruise has the advantage of playing one of those built-up parts, like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh or Harry Lime. Everyone in the first act talks up Stacee Jaxx, so he can't help but be impressive by the time he shows up—a fine fit for a star who by now can only really be convincing as a star. The dissolute rock-god gags (pet monkey, scrums of groupies) are old hat, but Cruise is a dynamic, kabuki-esque, full-body performer, and he gives Jaxx something between the boozy silverback swagger of Jim Morrison and Glenn Danzig's armored-car physical presence.

Jaxx finds his match in Malin Akerman's Rolling Stone reporter, who calls out Jaxx's coasting career under Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), his manager—that most conveniently villainized of rock-historical figures, scapegoated so that personal accountability can never be demanded of our heroes. Gill says things like, "We did a whole focus group on this—numbers don't lie," and will later get his hooks into rising star Drew, drafting him in a New Jack Swing–style boyband. This is presented as the epitome of sellout, which only makes sense if you are willing to accept the premise that there was more artistic integrity in being a member of, say, Poison, than in being in New Kids on the Block. Like much in Rock of Ages, it also carries a faint whiff of unexamined racism.

Choreographer-cum-director Adam Shankman, who previously handled 2007's Hairspray, does his best to keep things assaultively lively, hot-potatoing songs around the cast and crosscutting in Frankensteined mash-ups. The songs in Rock of Ages split pretty evenly between power balladry ("More Than Words") and anthemic fist-pumpers ("Pour Some Sugar on Me").

There are two basic ways of thinking about this music; which one you're inclined toward will probably influence your enjoyment of Rock of Ages. One is fond nostalgia—this was innocently hedonistic good-time party music, with hooks big enough to land Moby Dick. "Goddamn, they don't make 'em like they used to," said Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" in The Wrestler, when Def Leppard comes on in a bar. "Then that Cobain pussy had to come around and ruin it all."

The other—which I happen to believe—is that that Cobain pussy did everyone a great favor, because hair metal was bone stupid, creatively bankrupt, morally debased pop trash that marked an all-time low in record-label-chart manipulation and synthetic hit-making hackery. And if rock, as is herein insisted, will never die, the "rock" paradigm perpetuated by Rock of Ages—the same as in Rockstar energy drink and Nickelback's "Rockstar"—deserves a deep, dank unmarked grave.

 
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10 comments
Eastonpressjack
Eastonpressjack

That was RATT in The Wrestler, get a fact checker, but I agree with your review, Rock of Ages was horrid, and I like hair metal.

Dinkerton
Dinkerton

Which just goes to show that Nick Pinkerton does not know what he's talking about.

 

'nuff said

Jack
Jack

This is too funny. You call the author a music snob, then proceed to enumerate your musical credentials, from delta blues to pop songs. Oooooh! Impressive! Anyhoo ... Here's what the review is about: There's good music, and there's bad music - and hair metal is bad music. In fact it's shit music. Also - when I say "there's good music, and there's bad music", I mean that from an objective standpoint, not subjective. No one gives a shit what you like, or what makes you dance. So who are the arbiters? The people who understand music. The experts. Those who have studied, listened, and performed. They are in agreement: Hair metal is shit, by shit and for shit. You don't ask a short order cook which buildings are representative of the best architecture. You ask a renowned architect. Music is no different.

Tj Irish
Tj Irish

You guys are missing the point. Who cares about the music. The film sounds UNINTERESTING!!!

Tj Irish
Tj Irish

Sueth it's not about the music. It's whether the film is interesting. Trying to read the review of the plot lost me... Jones playing a Tipper Gore like part. That was what? 10 years ago or more she went on that rave. Mainly to try and help her now ex husband get elected POTUS.

Tj Irish
Tj Irish

The fact that I stopped reading in the middle of this review tells me I have no interest in seeing this film.

Dougvendors
Dougvendors

All genres of popular music can be mocked, but the fact remains that there are great and lousy songs from every genre. I too do not like certain styles of music, but if I hated one as much as Pinkerton hates 80s metal I would not purport to review something over which I had no objectivity.

Binkconn
Binkconn

Would any reviewer make the argument that hair bands were something of more artistic worth than road-trip radio-filler? Give Pinkerton (and everyone else with a modicum of good taste in music) a break.

sueth
sueth like.author.displayName 1 Like

..."because hair metal was bone stupid, creatively bankrupt, morally debased pop trash that marked an all-time low in record-label-chart manipulation and synthetic hit-making hackery." Did you ever notice how music snobs have no idea how truly obnoxious they are? Bashing hair metal or any other style of music does not make you one of the cool kids. I'm 60 years old and grew up listening to (and loving) everything from Delta blues and hard rock to featherweight top 40 pop songs. I've never belittled anyone's music preferences. If it makes someone happy and helps get them through the day - fine with me.

Dougvendors
Dougvendors like.author.displayName 1 Like

If Nick Pinkerton truly believes that hair metal is "bone stupid, creatively bankrupt, morally debased pop trash," why is he purporting to write a "movie review" about what he hates? Can someone move him to another department?

 

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