About a year and a half ago, I found myself aboard a Carnival cruise ship as part of Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most Cruise for reasons far too ridiculous to get into here. One night, I watched a Southern-fried slab of country beefcake named John Stone in a performance that seemed designed to highlight the impressive condition of the singer’s abdominal muscles more than his singing. His vibe was Chippendales-meets-Urban Cowboy, all rhinestone flash and shit-eating grins. And the crowd was eating it up. “I have no idea who you are, but, cowboy, take me away!” squealed a woman up front. I sat a table with three fiftysomething women from suburban Detroit who were there as part of a girls’ weekend out. I had nothing in common with these women besides my pure Midwestern blood.
Then something magical happened: The telltale first few bars of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” started playing, and suddenly everything I’d found phony, pandering, and clichéd about Stone (which is to say everything) began to feel beautiful and pure and right. This was cheese, all right, but it was pure cheese. More than that, it was transcendent cheese. It was the perfect song for the moment.
I stood there on the top deck of a cruise ship, ecstatically singing along to “Don’t Stop Believin’” alongside women who apparently needed to hear the song even more than I did. When we got to the part about the city boy “born and raised in South Detroit,” we all screamed the lines as if our lives depended on it. On a visceral, emotional level, this song just fucking worked. It didn’t work despite being cheesy and clichéd and ridiculous; it worked because it was so cheesy and clichéd and ridiculous. We needed the pulsating optimism of Journey’s timeless anthem. We needed to believe that everything would be all right if we just kept the faith, if we just kept on believing. It was a beautiful dream, and in that particular moment everything seemed exhilaratingly possible. Then “Don’t Stop Believin’” ended, and the brief, magical alchemy between me, three middle-aged women from Detroit, and the cheesiest fucking country singer in the world dissipated. And Stone’s music devolved from transcendently cheesy to merely embarrassing.
I mention this strange scene from Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most Cruise both because “Don’t Stop Believin’” figures prominently in Rock Of Ages and because the appeal of Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most Cruise is nearly identical to the appeal of Rock Of Ages. Had it succeeded onscreen the way it did during its inexplicably massive Broadway run, Rock Of Ages would have killed. Like Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most Cruise, Rock Of Ages offered audiences a vacation from the tyranny of taste, discernment, and sophistication, where everyone could indulge in the desire to be as cheesy and shameless and vulgar as possible. Like Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most cruise, Rock Of Ages skips deliriously past the centers of the cerebral cortex devoted to taste and appeals to some part of the brain that’s all about rocking out, scoping chicks, and sweet guitar solos. It’s an invitation to be a jeans-sporting teenager with a denim jacket that has the Guns N’ Roses insignia on the back all over again. That’s an irresistible offer the public found surprisingly easy to resist.
On paper, Rock Of Ages looks like an automatic blockbuster. Just about every facet of it arrives audience-approved: The musical it was based upon was a Broadway smash; the soundtrack is packed with hits people already know by heart; and the cast features an abundance of star power with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Malin Akerman, Julianne Hough, and most exciting of all—from a commercial perspective at least—arguably the biggest movie star in the world (Tom Cruise) playing arguably the biggest rock star in the world, a snake-hipped, leather-pants-wearing dynamo so sexually potent women reach orgasm just from being in the same area code. Rock Of Ages took something that was already wildly successful, added the world’s most successful movie star, and came away with a bomb.
How could that have happened? How could a can’t-miss proposition miss so egregiously? When I first saw the film, I thought it would do Mamma Mia numbers. Both films are based on enormously successful Broadway “jukebox musicals” overflowing with some of the biggest hits of the past half-century. Besides, the world is really divided into two camps: people who love ABBA and people who—for whatever reason—pretend not to love ABBA, to themselves and to the world. While ABBA may be as cheesy as hair metal, in 2012, hair metal appeals to a much smaller demographic. Hair metal was never particularly fashionable, but after Nirvana broke, liking glam metal performed by drunken heterosexual men who were dolled up like Vegas hookers became a source of enduring shame for much of the population. Musical theater, however, is a realm where it’s somehow acceptable to stage productions where people on roller skates pretend to be trains and actors pretend they are kitty cats. So the concept of shame doesn’t have quite the same currency there it does in other aspects of the pop-culture universe. Rock Of Ages tried to make it okay to like hair metal again, but that was a leap a lot of filmgoers simply weren’t willing to make. It’d be one thing to catch this movie on cable, where its parade of stars and soundtrack of hits are designed to catch the attention of channel surfers. But it’s another to hire a sitter, pay inflated movie-ticket prices, and see a hair-metal jukebox musical starring Tom Cruise and the woman from Dancing With The Stars.
Rock Of Ages opens by dunking audiences in a warm, soothing bath of clichés. We begin with Hough’s small-town girl taking a bus from rural Oklahoma to the big, bad streets of Los Angeles in 1987. Hough begins singing the Night Ranger hit “Sister Christian” a little hesitantly before the bus driver joins her. Then the entire bus begins singing along to the soaring chorus, and an adorable little girl, her blonde hair bathed in a halo of golden light, assures Hough, “It’ll be all right tonight.” The scene plays like a bizarro-world version of the “Tiny Dancer” sequence from Almost Famous, and for a brief moment I forgot how tedious I found Rock Of Ages the first time around, and I gave myself over to its populist shamelessness. Maybe my second viewing would prove preferable to the first; maybe the film would steamroll over my defenses and become giddy, goofy, ridiculous fun. The opening scene is tacky, deliriously unself-conscious, and vulgar but enjoyable enough to make me question whether self-consciousness and taste are inherently positive qualities. Isn’t there something liberating about giving yourself over to cheese?
My optimism was short-lived. By the time “Sister Christian” morphs into “Just Like Paradise,” which in turn morphs into “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” the film’s cornball charm begins to dissipate and kitsch oversaturation begins to kick in, and that’s barely five minutes in. Rock Of Ages doubles as a museum of well-worn show-business banalities, so the big-eyed dreamer with the big voice and even bigger plans is mugged of her beloved albums as a “Welcome to L.A.” hazing ritual within minutes of stepping off the Greyhound bus. Then she meets another pie-eyed dreamer (Diego Boneta) who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a once-magnificent rock institution now teetering on the brink of disaster. The club’s owner (Alec Baldwin) takes one look at Hough and hypothesizes,
You sang in the church choir every Sunday, senior year you had the third lead in your high-school musical, and then somebody, your adorable aunt Betty, told you that you have real talent. And like a flaming dipshit, you believed her, dumped your jock boyfriend, ditched town, and moved to Hollywood to have a crack at fame and fortune.
Baldwin sizes up Hough perfectly because he’s seen her type come, and he’s seen her type go. He also recognizes her because he too is a well-worn archetype: the tough-talking boss whose gruff exterior belies a proverbial heart of gold, as well as a deep, sincere passion for music.
In a dynamic as old as Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals, the only thing that can keep The Bourbon Room from going out of business is putting on a big show featuring the final performance of Arsenal, a massively successful hair-metal band led by Tom Cruise. Cruise plays his outlaw megastar as a man who uses the widespread perception that he’s completely insane to gain the upper hand in every relationship. (In one of the film’s few clever lines, Baldwin’s right-hand man—an amusingly typecast Russell Brand—argues Cruise is the kind of lunatic who blows off performing at the Super Bowl halftime show so that he can participate in a satanic ritual to sew up Debbie Harry’s vagina, a practice so insane even Satanists do not approve of it.)
Cruise is supposed to be decadent and self-destructive, yet there’s something incredibly calculating about his performance and the character: The bottle of booze he carries around feels like a prop, and his inebriated space-cadet persona seems like a mask to hide the scared little boy at his core. The character is supposed to represent the rapacious libido and insatiable id of rock ’n’ roll, but the film completely neuters him. In the stage version of Rock Of Ages, the Cruise character has sex with the character played by Hough in the men’s room of The Bourbon Room and ends up in Uruguay one step ahead of a statutory-rape charge. But Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise, so the character has been given a Tom Cruise makeover that shifts him from being predatory and amoral to being a hero who saves the club, gives Boneta his big break, and is redeemed by the love of a good woman. This woman is an invention the film requires in order to give Cruise the redemptive arc his movie-star ego apparently needs.
Meanwhile, the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of Mayor Bryan Cranston—whose appearance here would still be an embarrassment even if his biggest scene didn’t entail getting spanked by an assistant—leads a campaign to clean up Los Angeles by purging it of the sinful devil music that is rock ’n’ roll. Rock Of Ages somehow succeeds in transforming one of the most beautiful women in the world into a beginner drag queen, all bitchy attitude and aggressive dance moves. Zeta-Jones is cursed with having to perform a dance of pure rage, and Footloose has taught us there’s nothing sillier than spontaneous angry dancing.
I interviewed Hough in person at Wrigley Field around the time her remake of Footloose was released, and she seemed less like an attractive actress than the next step in evolution: an entertainer genetically engineered to resonate across all entertainment platforms, from reality shows (she got her big break as a hoofer on Dancing With The Stars) to movies to high-profile romances. Her smile was blinding, her hair hypnotically glossy, her body perfect. She was the ultimate starlet, even if there was something strangely remote and unknowable about her. Hough might not be much of an actress or singer, but she has unmistakable movie-star presence.
The same cannot be said of Boneta. The filmmakers were apparently counting upon Boneta’s personal magnetism to flesh out a fatally underwritten role, but Boneta’s all-encompassing blandness only exacerbates the flimsiness of his character and everything else in the film. In keeping with the strenuous commitment to the obvious, Hough and Boneta spend their first date discussing their dreams behind the Hollywood sign before Hough breaks up the tedium with a salacious dance number and Boneta takes out his acoustic guitar to bash out the beginning of the song he’s writing, a catchy little ditty about a small-town girl living in a lonely world who takes a midnight train going anywhere. That’s right: In the fantastical world of Rock Of Ages, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a tune Boneta writes for and about Hough, as well as the hit that will ultimately elevate him far above the other strivers looking to score a big break on the not-so-mean streets of L.A.
Hough and Boneta fall in love over the course of a montage sequence, but their poorly developed bond falls apart over the stupidest of misunderstandings. Boneta thinks he’s spied the aftermath of Hough hooking up with Cruise, when in fact Cruise has just seduced another beautiful blonde, a Rolling Stone reporter played by Malin Akerman. In keeping with this new vision of the Cruise character as a cross between Jim Morrison and Ethan Hunt, Akerman gets under Cruise’s skin with a trenchant exposé featuring lines like, “Stacee Jaxx will tell you he’s a cowboy, but lately he’s more like a boy-cow who got lost in the herd.” Oh man, has she got his number! All the fame, wealth, sex, and mystery in the world mean nothing when confronted with a journalist who sees beyond this icon’s scorching sexuality to the lost boy-cow underneath. Honestly, though, I would give this movie a “Secret Success” rating if it had included a tender ballad after Cruise reads the article entitled “I’m Just A Boy-Cow Lost In The Herd.”
Rather than confront Hough about what he thinks he saw her doing with Cruise, Boneta plays it cool and blows off the love of his life just in time for Cruise’s ponytail-sporting manager (Paul Giamatti, one of several respectable adults dignifying this nonsense with their presence) to swoop in and try to exploit Boneta, first by positing him as a hair-metal god, then by roping him into fronting a boy band.
Cruise performs the climactic concert to save The Bourbon Room, but Giamatti snags the proceeds and soon everyone has fallen upon hard times: Baldwin is once again in danger of losing his club; Boneta has sold out by pursuing perhaps the only form of music more soulless and mercenary than hair metal; and Hough, having quit her job at Bourbon, is reduced to stripping at one of those clubs, ubiquitous in PG-13 movies, where no one seems to do any actual stripping. These are all mere bumps on the highway to a Happy Ending, though, as Cruise reunites with Akerman—he got into her pants, but her words and spirit got into his soul, man—saves the club by returning the proceeds of his concert, and makes Hough and Boneta’s career by recording “Don’t Stop Believin’” and inviting them onstage to sing it with him.
Rock Of Ages has the same problem as Rent: It offers a Broadway version of grime where every speck of dirt appears to have been deliberately placed by a fussy production designer. The tight leather pants that are supposed to reek from months, if not years, of non-washing look freshly pressed by the costume designer. It’s a fantasy-themed-restaurant incarnation of Sunset Strip quasi-sleaze where no one overdoses, no one gets raped, and despite a little good-natured raunch, there’s nothing to offend the sensibilities of tourists and out-of-towners. But it’s not entirely devoid of redeeming facets. Baldwin and Brand are adorable as they gaze deep into each other’s eyes and sing “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” after they realize the depth of their feelings for one another. And T.J. Miller has an amusingly deadpan cameo as a Rolling Stone staffer who has the misfortune of answering the phone when Cruise calls the magazine looking for Akerman. But, alas, Rock Of Ages is ultimately a bloated, tedious, sanitized mess that’s fun for about five minutes and achingly dull for the next two hours.
Clichés become clichés for three primary reasons: They’re soothingly familiar, they contain an element of truth, and they work. This film functions as a feature-length testament to the wisdom of sticking with clichés, but while everything in it feels soothingly familiar, nothing has the ring of truth, and on a fundamental level, it just does not work. It was an attempt to resurrect the shamelessness of hair metal for a new, more forgiving generation, but the chilly reception the film received suggests that this tackiest and least respectable of rock subgenres might be better off dead. Just as clichés become clichés for a reason, there are a number of good reasons Rock Of Ages failed so spectacularly. For ’80s rockers and hair metal’s true believers, it may be time to stop believing.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure