Hair metal essentially functions as glam rock’s lobotomized, skirt-chasing meathead younger brother. This disreputable musical bastard child stole glam’s look and brazen attitude, but drained it of ideas, smarts, and sexual and moral ambiguity. Now glam rock and hair metal have each received the cinematic jukebox musicals they deserved. Todd Haynes’ mesmerizing Velvet Goldmine used the relationship between glam icons Iggy Pop and David Bowie as a springboard to explore the heady intersection of sexuality, fame, and the passing of time, while hair metal’s Reagan-era prime has been faithfully transformed into a big-budget celebrity dress-up karaoke party in the feature-film adaptation of the Broadway smash Rock Of Ages. This glossy musical, from Hairspray director Adam Shankman, is a shameless crowd-pleaser where cardboard characters use the most overplayed and ubiquitous hits of the 1980s to express the aching banality of their souls.
Shiny-haired minx Julianne Hough of Footloose and Dancing With The Stars fame leads a star-studded cast as a small-town girl who comes to the big city armed with nothing but a big voice and even bigger dreams. At a nightclub where she toils for tough-but-fair Alec Baldwin, Hough meets charisma-impaired male ingénue Diego Boneta, an aspiring rocker biding his time and writing songs while awaiting his big break. Boneta and Hough fall in love over the course of a montage sequence and a production number or two, only to watch their fragile bond shatter over a simple misunderstanding. Baldwin, meanwhile, hopes to save his struggling club by hosting the final performance of a band fronted by Tom Cruise, a swaggering rock god and sex incarnate. Cruise at least seems to be enjoying himself, but the filmmakers could have saved themselves a lot of money by hiring Val Kilmer simply to recreate his performance in The Doors.
Rock Of Ages is pitched so big and broad, it can be seen from neighboring galaxies. Playing a hot-blooded riff on Tipper Gore as a censorship-crazed man-eater, Catherine Zeta-Jones sweats, punches, and kicks her way through her production numbers as if training for the Olympics rather than dancing. Rock Of Ages has little to offer beyond the cheap beer-buzz of nostalgia mingled with the soothing familiarity of songs everyone knows by heart, regardless of whether they own the albums containing them. The simultaneously flimsy and overblown extravaganza has entirely too much faith in its soundtrack’s power to overcome generic characters, dialogue that’s funny for all the wrong reasons, and a plot that could barely support a Warrant video, let alone a 125-minute film. Rock Of Ages is a shockingly convincing film-length refutation of Noël Coward’s famous quip from Private Lives, where a character notes, “Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is.”