With this Rock of Ages review, it would be lazier, but possibly more appropriate to this kind of movie, to just sling adjectives, the names of a few of the key players, and a meaningless rating at the computer screen (broad, oblivious, tactless, cynical; Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti; star, star, star, half star) instead of typing my way around the nuts and bolts of the ultra-glibness that pervades the whole thing. The idea’s that a Broadway musical, such as Rock of Ages is based on, is almost by definition a glib, over-produced package; and so was hair metal, which Rock of Ages is about; and so are big summer movies, which Rock of Ages is. But when the product of all three comes together, watching it feels more like being assaulted than entertained.
Based on its subject and genre, it would seem that Rock of Ages was intended to entertain a curiously select cross-section of people: those who are fans of both hair metal and Broadway musicals. At first, this seemed to me like an odd combination — fit only for that odd breed of aging partier, still recovering from the 80s, who also happen to live in Manhattan and avidly attend things like Grease, Damn Yankees, and Hairspray. But maybe all of Hollywood’s subgenres begin as these odd juxtapositions. Teen sex romps and horror movies now seem inextricable, as do mockumentaries and just about any mainstream genre you can think of. Director Adam Shankman, responsible for the Vin Diesel comedy The Pacifier (and about a dozen other atrocities, including the movie version of Hairspray and a few episodes of Glee) is a seasoned veteran of this kind of mashup. Given that he’s a choreographer-turned-director whose box office record dictates that he should keep making movies, it shouldn’t be surprising that Rock of Ages is aware of its own glibness to the point where Shankman seems to think that glibness itself is his movie’s best joke.
Rock of Ages really wants to be in on the joke about its own superficiality — thus the winking, tongue-in-cheek performances from Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, and Tom Cruise; thus the sets and lighting that are so fake they could be dumped onto a Broadway stage mid-show and no one would blink. But calling itself out for its own glibness is a pretty flimsy tactic for avoiding the pathos presumably required by any medium (even Broadway) that’s attempting to tell a story.
This story is about two lacquered stereotypes — intended, in the Broadway tradition, to be that way — a girl and a boy (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) who find themselves working side by side in the same Los Angeles heavy metal club in 1987. Owned by a grizzled scenester (Baldwin), frequented by a superstar rocker (Cruise) who owes the club a debt because it’s where he got famous, and full of big hair, tight jeans, and cheap beer, the place is intended to feel like ground zero for hair metal, and everyone in the film is (or will come to be) convinced that the genre was not only the apotheosis of rock music, but its last great gasp as well. Meanwhile everyone watching — save for those folks itching to hear an 80s icon like Tom Cruise cover Foreigner — will be aware that mainstream rock changed for the better after the 1980s, back into something resembling the actual art form it was before the 1980s. But you can’t exactly fault a movie for trying to drum up interest in its subject; the best you can do is point out that it does so in a very, very unconvincing way. If L.A. was built on rock and roll, then Rock of Ages, like both hair metal and Tom Cruise before it, makes a particularly witless attempt to tear it down.