Zero stars (out of four)
Some things that might be worth noting when making a musical inspired by the attitude and sleaze of 1987 L.A. hair metal:
>> Just because someone loves rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t mean they include the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” in every sentence. When recognizing songs like “Talk Dirty To Me” as sex music, don’t suggest dry humping represents the peak of behind-the-scenes indulgence.
>> Churchgoing women protesting rock music probably wouldn’t do a choreographed dance to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” (It’s like the basketball players in “High School Musical” singing about how much they hate singing.) Also, an examination of the period’s morals shouldn’t come rigged with hypocrisy from those protesting (including Catherine Zeta-Jones as the leader of women aiming to “Clean up the strip”).
>> If you’re going to have a sing-along on a bus, you should probably feature passionate music fans belting out something raw. Average Midwesterners joining in on Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” will make Cameron Crowe wish he never turned “Tiny Dancer” into a group effort.
>> The era’s lows included overdoses and fatal, drug- and alcohol-infused car crashes, not just a veteran singer (Tom Cruise) who’s not nice to people anymore.
>> Strip clubs actually have nudity, not the women of “Burlesque” hanging on poles while manager Mary J. Blige sings Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”
>> It’s not necessary to feature a small town girl in a lonely world singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” or a rock star lamenting the solitude of the road with Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The songs are the stories, and the subjects singing songs to which we know all the words add no clarity about their lives.
>> Just because it’s 1987 doesn’t mean someone has to make a joke about how Michael Jackson’s looking pale these days. The Jackson jokes have been made. Leave him alone.
Laughable before the opening credits end, the blasphemous “Rock of Ages” (co-written by Chris D’Arienzo from his Broadway play) is far from the first musical to shape chart-topping songs into a story. Except we’d all be better off just listening to the music, not barback/aspiring musician Drew (Diego Boneta) singing Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” as if he wrote it, or Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand singing along to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
I like this music, but not like this, not with its sweat and energy replaced by the tale of goody-two-shoes Sherrie (Julianne Hough), who, of course, travels from Oklahoma to L.A. with big dreams and no idea what the big city will bring. And lipstick with which to draw a heart and “D+S” on a mirror when she falls for Drew.
Hollywood frequently struggles to capture rock on screen. “The Rocker” acted as if Teddy Geiger were a tough guy, while “Across the Universe” put great Beatles songs in the mouths of characters who didn’t deserve them, and the guilty pleasure “Rock Star” embraced the posturing of late ’80s rock but went soft on its priorities.
With “Rock of Ages,” director Adam Shankman tries to re-do “Hairspray” for ex-groupies who now just sing karaoke. The movie becomes embarrassing for everyone involved, including Paul Giamatti as a seedy agent who belts out part of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” Malin Akerman as a supposedly hard-hitting journalist who also sleeps with her subject, and Stacee Jaxx’s (Cruise) monkey, whose reactions we see constantly.
Why not give the artists on screen an actual creative identity, not continually shift from one character singing Def Leppard as their own and then a different scene in which original Def Leppard plays? Shankman also doesn’t suggest any passage of time, so Drew’s transition from rock to boy band pop achieves in seemingly four days what should have taken three years.
“Rock of Ages” isn’t a tribute to hedonism, it’s a playlist that makes “Glee” look musically insightful by comparison. For many, Poison and other bands of the time represent enjoyably vapid novelty music, easy to mock but equally easy to shut up and enjoy. It was a time when fake boobs would get you backstage, but phoniness like “Rock of Ages” deserves to be tossed out the back door on its ass.
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