Surviving the ’80s is a badge of honor on some level. I spent most of 1987 at the questionable age of sixteen. If my memory of that year is clouded by a quarter century’s worth of idealized hindsight and unrealized aspirations, please keep that fact in mind. That I managed to make it through without ever sporting a rock mullet is a miracle that continues to amaze me.
To condense into a movie the 80’s experience of seeing live rock bands and partying yourself into a slovenly heap of threadbare Japanese emblazoned clothes is to extend a music video into a two and a half hour ordeal.
“Rock of Ages” begins as Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is riding on a Greyhound from Tulsa to Hollywood with a picture of her grandmother and a suitcase full of her favorite records, the obvious intent being to sing her way to stardom. Sherrie breaks out into the far too obvious “Sister Christian”, accompanied by other riders. This first number sets expectation of creativity pretty low. At least Hough’s seal-like singing voice makes its first appearance later.
The Hollywood side of the story centers around The Bourbon club, a live rock performance venue. It is here that Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) works as a bar back. Outside, Drew comes to the rescue but is unable to save Sherrie’s records when she is mugged. Instead, Drew offers to get her hired on as a waitress at The Bourbon, but warns her not to mention her dream of singing to the owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin). Initially skeptical of Sherrie, Dennis relents when he learns one of his waitresses just quit.
Drew and Sherrie end up falling for each other because they apparently have no other reason to be in the film if they don’t. Resurrecting the standard ‘80s montage, the two spend lots of time doing lots of things, not the least of which is working through Drew’s stage fright.
Financially struggling, The Bourbon is facing concerted efforts to close it down so that developers can reclaim the land. The mayor’s wife, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) seems to have a personal vendetta against everything the club stands for. She vows to martial an army of angry religious mothers to force the club to close.
The Bourbon launched the career of the fictional band Arsenal whose lead singer, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), has recently decided to go solo after one last performance at the club. Stacee seems to combine the worst aspects of any number of ‘80s rock band leads, but the heaviest dose of inspiration is likely Guns and Roses’ lead singer Axl Rose. Stacee exists in reality for only brief interactions with those around him, spending the rest of his time in a kind of spacey blur, baffling everyone he speaks to. Physically, Cruise looks more like Iggy Pop with his wiry musculature and frighteningly thin skin.
Jaxx has a liaison with a Rolling Stone reporter, Constance Sack (Malin Akerman), who plays the unconfident girl that’s prettier than she thinks, ubiquitous in music videos. In the aftermath, Drew mistakes the circumstances and believes Sherrie has cheated on him with Jaxx leading to the inspiration for him to go on stage and wow the audience as well as Jaxx’s manager.
Post breakup, Sherrie quits her job and ends up working at a strip club while Drew finds himself being pitched as a boy-band lead instead of a rock singer. Meanwhile, The Bourbon is still in financial trouble because Jaxx’s manager has claimed nearly all the proceeds from the benefit performance and the ranks of “Church Ladies” outside are growing by the hour, calling for the end of Rock and Roll.
There is little new, creative or surprising about “Rock of Ages” beyond sub-par voices singing old songs. The familiarity of the tunes and lyrics does little to compensate for the strangeness of the medleys, the awkwardly predictable plot and the over-the-top acting. The entire production feels like something dreamed up by a bunch of high school students for a spring play.