One of the very first images of the 80's-themed musical "Rock of Ages" is our heroine Sherri Christian (Julianne Hough) on a bus bound from her native Oklahoma to the bright lights of the L.A. Strip flipping through her vinyl collection. The first record? Aerosmith's "Permanent Vacation." I confess, Aerosmith's "Permanent Vacation" was one of the very albums (cassette tapes) I ever owned. I sighed, whimsically. Not long after this Sherri Christian leads the entire bus in a singalong to "Sister Christian" (ah?). This flashed me back to a bus ride in the dark of the night after a middle school event in the midst of a whole-bus singalong to Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer." I sighed, whimsically, even louder.
This is all to say, I am the target audience for "Rock of Ages." I was raised on this music. I grew up listening to Poison and Def Leopard and Bon Jovi and Guns 'n' Roses on Q-102. I should have loved the holy hell outta this movie! And I didn't. I really, really didn't. In fact, once we got past the opening ten minutes, I thought it was downright awful. So the question becomes: why did this happen? Why did it fail so miserably? Let's investigate.
"Rock of Ages", directed by Adam Shankman, follows Sherri Christian as she arrives in Hollywood desperate to become a singing star. She meets Drew (Diego Boneta), a barback at the legendary Bourbon Room, a raucous club that pulls in the best rock 'n' roll acts of the 80's, where he is able to finagle her a job. The club is owned by Dennis Dupree, played by Alec Baldwin in an apparently endless line of deft performances, who owes so much in back taxes ("taxes are sooooooo un-rock 'n' roll") that he is entirely dependent on an upcoming performance by the mercurial superstar Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). Jaxx, however, is so spectacularly mercurial that his gig may not even happen. Meanwhile the new Angeleno Mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his Westboro Baptist-esque better half (Catherine Zeta Jones) are fanatically intent on putting a stop to this rock 'n' roll invasion, cleaning up the strip and shutting down the Bourbon Room.
Perhaps the previous paragraph clues you into one of the movie's significant issues - namely, there is a lot going on. Too much going on, one might say, and it is made that much worse by the never-ending Monster Hits Of The 80's that while sometimes commenting on the action at hand, more often leave "Rock of Ages" with the decidedly painful sensation of a never-ending montage. But where it really trips itself up is in the handling of its best character and its second best performance (I was partial to Baldwin, who is shoved aside too soon) - Stacee Jaxx.
In the brilliant "Wag the Dog", Dustin Hoffman's producer Stanley Motts, hired by the White House to stage a phony war and, thus, create a phony war hero says of said war hero the following: "Schumann is Jaws. You have to tease them. You don't put Jaws in the first reel of the movie. It's the contract, sweetheart. The contract of the election, whether they know it or not, is 'Vote for me Tuesday, Wednesday I'll produce Schumann.' See, that's what they're paying their seven bucks for."
In "Rock of Ages" we are paying our seven bucks to see Stacee Jaxx. He and his superstardom and immense talent and mind-bending eccentricity is hinted at almost immediately. The contract of the movie, whether we know it or not, is pay for the movie, stay with the movie, at the end it will produce Stacee Jaxx. You can't put Stacee Jaxx in the first reel of the movie. You have to tease us.
And while Stacee Jaxx is not in the first reel of the movie, per se, he is at least in the second reel of the movie and then again in the third and so on. And while even though the one scene I most enjoyed was obviously Stacee Jaxx and Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack finding out what love is aboard a backstage pool table simply because Constance Sack was played by my official Cinematic Crush Malin Akerman, well, sorry, but I recognize poor storytelling when I see it.
Then again, Shankman may have realized he needed Stacee Jaxx to turn up earlier simply because the Sherri/Drew storyline is so devoid of the all-important "Magic Touch" and because the Mayor and his clean-up-the-strip initiative isn't satire but mismanaged fluff. Please understand, it is not the derivativeness, because the derivativeness is the whole point, but the uninteresting way in which all of this is acted and presented.
"Rock of Ages" is like buying a cassette based on that one really good single and then quickly realizing the rest of the album is pure crap.