The “jukebox musical” has been around on the big screen for a while now — ranging from 1978’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to 2008’s “Mamma Mia!” — and they all face the same existential problem: how to shoehorn a fistful of well-known pop songs into something resembling a story line.
“Rock of Ages,” based on the 2008 Broadway musical of the same name, plunders the catalog of 1980s hair-metal power ballads to tell the story of, well, a couple of kids in the ’80s who dream of being hair-metal stars. Points for originality, people.
Julianne Hough (country singer and “Footloose” remake star) and Diego Boneta (TV’s “Pretty Little Liars”) play our star-crossed lovers, Sherrie and Drew. She’s just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world, she took the midnight, uh, bus to Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. He’s just a city boy, who sees her in a smoky room, blah, blah, blah, and immediately lands her a job at the Whiskey a Go Go look-alike club at which he bartends. The two endure romantic complications while waiting for their big break as musicians. Wait a minute: Didn’t I just review this movie, and wasn’t it called “Burlesque”?
Alec Baldwin gets the Cher role as the seen-it-all club manager who dismisses the kids’ ambitions, until Drew’s band fills in for a no-show at the last minute and brings the house down with a rendition of Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock.” But wait! The club is threatened with closure by the meddlesome wife of a politician (Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a role obviously modeled on Tipper Gore) and the only thing that can save it is a concert by drug-addled rock demigod Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), whose career started at the club.
We know the drill by now: the free, fun-loving rock ‘n’ rollers vs. The Man, which we’ve seen in the original “Footloose,” “Empire Records,” “School of Rock” and dozens of others. In the battle between blue jeans and the power suits, the jeans always win (in the movies at least), although “Rock of Ages” goes on to suggest that the critics of hair metal — with its ingrained sexism and mindless substance abuse — are hypocritical harpies who all secretly want to get a good hard one from the likes of Stacee Jaxx.
Yet does this “rock as youth rebellion” trope still hold up in an era when the parents of many under-20s grew up listening to Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain or Joe Strummer? Driving your parents nuts these days involves blasting Justin Bieber or Skrillex. Of course, a film in which Sherrie winds up working as a self-described “stripper” in a pole-dancing joint while fully clothed can’t exactly claim the mantle of debauched rebellion.
Cruise’s crotch-thrusting performance as Stacee — modeled on some unholy blend of Axl Rose, Nikki Sixx and Steven Tyler — is the film’s biggest selling point: Cruise is at his most convincing when he plays arrogant (see “Magnolia”), and his narcissistic, sexually intimidating rock god is a great caricature. Second prize goes to the always great Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) as Stacee’s conniving manager, who gets to wear a loathsome ’80s-yuppie ponytail here. In fact, the film is fun whenever its focus is on the supporting cast: It’s Boneta and Hough who come off all bland spongy white-bread.
Also problematic is a script that hinges on Sherrie not being a wanton nympho groupie but a good girl-next-door type, and Drew being a faithful boyfriend with no interest in groupies, which on the hair-metal scene was about as likely as nonalcoholic beer.
Like most musicals these days, “Rock of Ages” is entirely camp, with a tarted-up parody of ’80s L.A., but what’s interesting is how Shankman has managed to homo-eroticize the most swaggeringly hetero rock scene ever. (See the 1988 documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” if you don’t believe me.) This is made overt by having Baldwin’s club manager come out and declare his love for his assistant, Lonny (Russell Brand), and the duo serenade each other with REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Of course, given the depressing regularity with which people such as the real Nikki Sixx still go on about “fags,” the film’s warm-and-fuzzy inclusiveness is mostly wishful thinking.
It is more accurate when depicting the disdain hair metal had for other scenes, especially those with a trace of blackness. “Rock of Ages” makes a huge point out of mocking Drew’s big sellout, when he joins a vaguely B-boy influenced boy band (think early New Kids on the Block). It’s true, he does look like a clown in his multicolored, XL-size outfit, but really, does he look any less clownish than when he’s scowling, sticking his tongue out and throwing the devil horns while holding a guitar jutting out from his crotch? Hair metal deserves some respect for having cranked out its own catalogue of instantly recognizable tunes, but “cool” is one thing it never was, and — despite the rose-colored tint of nostalgia — will never be.