Even those of us who, in the eighties, shunned the likes of Foreigner, Journey, and REO Speedwagon for the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and the Mekons would slip on a heavy-metal track when we wanted to get pumped up — engorged — and to convince ourselves for the length of a song that anything, anything was possible. The musical Rock of Ages, directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray), aims to stretch that euphoria out for two-plus hours of wall-to-wall metal anthems (none original, all overfamiliar), which have been shoe-horned into a perils-of-showbiz melodrama featuring a pair of fresh-faced lovers and a burned-out metal god whose heart is stirred (along with his loins) by a probing female journalist. The film is camp from first deafening note to last and, depending on your perspective, either a blissfully synthetic balls-out celebration of metal energy or a horror show that cheapens that energy with pointedly fatuous plotting, ham-handed editing, and Auto-Tuned vocals. I hold the latter view but envy my friends with the former. I’d rather not have spent the whole movie wanting to beat my head against the floor to make the goddamned thing stop.
The stars are blonde Julianne Hough as the girl with big dig dreams who arrives in Los Angeles from the Midwest and cleft-chinned Diego Boneta, who points to the marquee of the Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip and says, “One of these days my name’s gonna be up there.” Both in their way are infatuated with the greatest star that the club has launched — Stacee Jaxx, the lead singer of Arsenal, now a monster who lives (barely) on a diet of alcohol and groupies, and is played by Tom Cruise in what publicists like to portray as a daring change of pace for a leading man of his stature. Cruise’s Jaxx wears a faint smirk and talks very softly to get people to lean in and serve him better. It’s not a bad performance — only superficial, with a glint of irony to let you know that he knows he’s sending himself up. But he does have the best (and, in some respects, only) real scene in Rock of Ages, an encounter with a Rolling Stone writer (Malin Akerman in big glasses and schoolgirl-prim short skirt) that is, beat by beat, a thing of beauty. The interviewer, named Constance Sack, counters the star’s obnoxious monosyllables by characterizing him as “just another lonely man” taken over by a false identity, asking, “What happens when you realize you can’t get rid of Stacee Jaxx?” Jaxx tells her his life has been spent “searching for the perfect song, the perfect sound that will make you want to live forever” — as fine an assessment of pump-you-up rock as any I’ve heard — and a quest that we know from the skeletons of so many dead rockers is no design for living.
Nothing else comes close to that scene, although Boneta’s later packaging (by Paul Giamatti, playing once again an unscrupulous handler) as a member of a posturing boy band is hilariously awful and reminded me why the late eighties were the crudest half-decade for music since the early twelfth century, pre–Hildegard von Bingen. The rest of Rock of Ages is like Disney-fied hetero John Waters, with crusading anti-rock politician squares (Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and, on the other side, a couple of longhairs (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand) who find true love in each other’s slobby embrace. Stripped of whatever context they had and Auto-Tuned to the point that they might as well be sung by Rebecca Black, songs like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Can’t Fight This Feelin’,” and (God help us — not again — yes, again — and twice for good measure) “Don’t Stop Believin’” sound generic and interchangeable. Even Mary J. Blige (as the owner of a strip club where our heroine is reduced to pole-dancing) could be replaced by Whoopi Goldberg with no clear loss of authenticity. This is metal’s answer to Disney’s “Country Bears Jamboree” ride, combining the most numbskull videos of eighties’ MTV with the lowest moments of Glee. The editing is so frenetic that you can hardly recognize the motion of bodies in time to music as dance.
For me, the saddest thing about Rock of Ages is that Shankman, along with Chris D’Arienzo (who created the Broadway show this is based on), very likely believes in the restorative and transcendental energies of rock and roll, the kind of energy that awakens your senses and makes you feel as if we’re all connected. But he comes out of a degraded show business tradition. You can’t deliver a breakthrough-into-ecstasy climax when you begin with an ecstatic climax and promiscuously lard your musical with one ecstatic climax after another. Rock of Ages withholds nothing and makes miracles seem cheap.