How to make Mamma Mia look edgy
Rock of Ages could have been an entertainingly kitsch celebration of Eighties soft rock. Sadly, it isn’t.
The mid to late Eighties were a particularly strange time for rock ‘n’ roll. With the birth of hair metal and arena rock, the fierceness of punk was choked by a haze of hairspray and the airwaves were flooded with the party rock of Poison and Motley Crue. Yet, for all their empty-headed hedonism, those years produced some inimitable, earworm anthems, which have managed to keep their makers in girls, gigs and Jack Daniels ever since.
Adapted from the Broadway show of the same name, Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages sets out to indulge these guilty pleasures in an unashamed, singalong musical. Unfortunately, the result is an excessively tame and irritating film that makes Mamma Mia look edgy by comparison.
It is 1987 and country girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) travels to LA to pursue her dreams as a rock singer. After arriving, bursting into song and being mugged, she bumps into fellow smalltown runaway and aspiring guitar hero Drew (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job in the legendary rock club The Bourbon Room. Hounded by a conservative women’s group and blighted by unpaid taxes, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), the Bourbon Room’s owner, lays all his hopes on a one-off performance by Arsenal, a hair-metal band fronted by the notorious Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), which is sure to bring in the punters. When Jaxx arrives, however, he is a shadow of his former self, strung-out and controlled by his sleazy manager, played by a pony-tailed Paul Giamatti. With the Bourbon Room on the verge of bankruptcy and Stacee on the verge or irrelevancy, the fire of rock ‘n’ roll seems to be all but extinguished.
Even though, in these early scenes, the film seems to engage with the inescapable decadence of the era, the plot centres around Sherrie and Drew’s attempts to save rock ‘n’ roll from the clammy grasp of The Man. Rather than being an unapologetic party animal, Stacee Jaxx is presented as a misled rock poet and his subsequent return to credibility is utterly cringeworthy. The film culminates in an all-together-now rendition of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, supposedly to signal that the spirit of rock has returned. However, after sitting through the lengthy final number, I’m sure much of the audience will feel glad that the advent of grunge soon lay that banal era of rock to rest.
Of course, while one may turn one’s nose up at the music of the film, in their own silly way these bands were once a force to be reckoned with. Seething with youthful energy, songs like ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ by Twisted Sister ruffled the feathers of such censorious groups as the Parents Music Resource Centre, but their treatment here renders them incredibly inane. With its combination of squeaky-clean young leads and jazz-handed choreography, Rock of Ages feels about as rock ‘n’ roll as an episode of Glee.
Although Tom Cruise’s hilariously deadpan performance provides ample diversion in between numbers, seeing him arching his back like Iggy Pop and protruding his bare chest on stage, covered in painted-on tattoos, is simply embarrassing. Along with Russell Brand’s botched Brummie accent, undoubtedly affected in honour of Ozzy Osbourne, Rock of Ages mocks rather than celebrates the era which inspired it.
While aiming for a joyous romp through some soft-rock classics, Rock of Ages comes off sanitised and even somewhat ignorant of the musical history it plunders. I concede that this film wasn’t really made for a twentysomething like me, and its release in time for Father’s Day makes that all the more clear. Yet I find it hard to believe that even the most nostalgic old rocker would find this anything other than offensive.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
Watch the trailer for Rock of Ages: