I must confess my approach to this review of Rock of Ages with a quote:
“I’m old and I’m not happy. Everything today is improved and I don’t like it. I hate it! In my day, we didn’t have hair dryers. If you wanted to blow dry your hair, you stood outside during a hurricane. Your hair was dry, but you had a sharp piece of wood driven clear through your skull! And that’s the way it was, and you liked it! You loved it! Whoopee, I’m a human head-kabob!”
– Dana Carvey as Grumpy Old Man, “Saturday Night Live”
You see, this is the way I feel about Rock of Ages. Having grown up in the era from which the songs from this film (and the Broadway musical upon which this film was based) were culled, I realized early on that this movie wasn’t geared toward me; this movie was more for the “American Idol” and “Glee” fans, neither of which I am. What Rock of Ages manages to do is take the “rock” out of every song and replace it with the Auto-Tuned, toneless vocal bravura that seems to dominate current pop music and television shows. The story found amid the songs is no great shakes, either – if you’ve seen 2000’s Coyote Ugly, 2001’s Rock Star, 2007’s Music and Lyrics, and 2010’s Burlesque, you’ll catch yourself wondering if you’ve seen this movie before. But where the latter three at least propelled their stories forward with original music, Rock of Ages relies on everything from the 1980s: the hair, the glam, and the music, whether rock or not.
The story, set in 1987, is fairly easily digestible and non-challenging, as the whole movie is practically a cliché. The ingénue singer (Julianne Hough) comes to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune, meets a motley crew of bar workers (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand) at the fictional Bourbon Room, and finds a talented love interest (Diego Boneta) who’s just about to be given his big stage break. Throw in a Tipper Gore analog (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a boozed-out, overly self-involved lead singer (Tom Cruise) who’s just about to go solo, and you’ve got a pot full of wacky characters who take each moment to dazzle the camera in their own way, be it through just looking pretty, being the odd comic relief, or seething raw sexuality in leather pants. Rock of Ages seems to spend its time being either groan-inducingly bad or somewhat tolerable, never taking itself as seriously as it seems to want to take itself, but also not trying at all. It’s a little lazy and predictable, with the dialogue scenes being merely filler between each overblown musical number. And being set in 1987, the use of songs released after that year creates anachronistic errors, but I guess lumping hair metal bands together doesn’t matter when the goal is to rock, right?
Being a musician for almost thirty years makes me focus on the music first in this movie, and I think that when it comes down to it, Rock of Ages is a glorified karaoke film. That’s all it is. Here, you have young actors (who weren’t even alive when most of these songs were on the charts) singing power ballads, rock anthems, and other such ‘80s cheese with the sultriness and vocal skill of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. This dichotomy tries to bridge the generational gap between nostalgia-seeking old folks (like me) and the age of Auto-Tune; instead, it only serves to make viewers realize that things were, indeed, better back then. We had rock stars with such magnetic personae, revered stage moves, and glorious vocal power and tone that could punch through six-foot-thick concrete walls. But the audience that sees Rock of Ages will hear these songs stripped of all these ingredients and replaced with flat-toned popsters whose voices could barely punch through a single layer of Krispy Kreme icing. Their saccharine vocals take every bit of “rock” away from the heavy songs and push it into a territory that the authors of these songs would have been frightened of back in the 1980s: pop.
Gone are the searing tones of singers like W. Axl Rose, Bret Michaels, Joe Elliott, Jon Bon Jovi, and Jani Lane; instead, formerly raucous songs like “Paradise City” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” are made safe using modern recording and tuning techniques, with an overuse of digital processing crushing the life and soul out of everyone’s vocal track. And when Mary J. Blige, an honest-to-gosh real singer shows up, you’ll hear an appreciable, almost tactile difference between her strong, soulful vocals and those that have been overly treated with studio magic. And if you really want to know what this movie’s about, there’s a scene using one of the most un-rock “rock” songs in history – “We Built This City” by Starship – and director Adam Shankman has put the likes of Sebastian Bach (the lead singer of ’80s hard rock group Skid Row), Kevin Cronin (of REO Speedwagon), and Nuno Bettencourt (virtuoso guitarist from Extreme) in that scene to help sing that song. The use – or shall I say, abuse – of rock songs and rock idols in this movie is bordering on atrocious disrespect.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its good turns, especially those by a rogue’s gallery of film veterans – Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Russell Brand make this movie worth the time spent with it. Baldwin and Brand make the most of their scenes, even with their limited screen time; thinking about their characters’ arcs almost a full day after the movie still makes me smile. Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx seems to be an amalgam of the greatest “Saturday Night Live” rock star parodies, combined with a little bit of This Is Spinal Tap, making him one of the funnier cinematic rock stars, but also one of the most badass screen presences we’ve seen from him since Les Grossman. And as the woman hellbent on making Sunset Strip closer to Heaven, Zeta-Jones plays the politician’s wife to the hilt, evoking the spirit of the anti-metal parents’ movement of the 1980s with such gusto that you could almost feel the high-and-mightiness rolling off of her in waves.
Unfortunately, the other stars (besides the music) are almost painful by comparison. Hough doesn’t seem to be anything more than pretty window dressing for having such a huge part, and Boneta is barely memorable as the rock-star-in-waiting. And when you hear her sing, you’ll wonder if you’re supposed to be listening to a country song or a rock song, with her toneless Christina Aguilera impression on every song getting more tiresome with each passing moment. There’s no “oomph” behind her vocals, and the movie suffers for it, totally contravening the movie’s title. I remember when rock music was subversive, powerful, and thrilling. It was called “rock” because, well, it rocked.
And that’s the way it was, and I liked it.
FINAL GRADE: C
Reel Films News Movie Review by Eddie Pasa