“So you think my singing’s out of time?/It makes me money./And I don’t know why/I don’t know why./Anymore.” – Quiet Riot, “Come on Feel the Noise”
The above lyric from the song that plays over the closing credits to Adam Shankman’s big screen adaptation of the jukebox stage musical Rock of Ages sums up 80s Hair and Glam Metal to a perfect T. A faithful, but ultimately unsound reimagining of an era, Shankman seems to get the joke that the Whitesnake’s and Poison’s of the world were admittedly kind of funny. He provides exactly what Glam Metal provided for audiences in the film’s musical numbers, but as an actual story with characters, plot, and actors, there’s not much to gravitate towards. And yet, somehow, it still feels fun at times.
Things don’t get off to a promising start in the narrative department with a mash-up number leading into an eventual cover of “Nothing But a Good Time,” but it’s up front sentiment still feels hackneyed out of the gate, as we’re introduced to Sherie (Julianne Hough), a country girl from Oklahoma headed to LA in 1987 to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer. After a rough introduction to the famed Sunset Strip, she starts a meet-cute relationship with Drew (Diego Boneta), a bartender at the fictionally famous Bourbon Room (clearly a riff on combining the Viper Room with the Whisky a Go Go), and an aspiring singer/songwriter in his own right.
While the film admirably lays bare that it has nothing to go on other than pure artifice within the first five minutes, the problems with the leads are never overcome throughout the entire film. Aside from being somewhat bland and being saddled with a romance that feels completely like an afterthought, they each only bring half of the their character’s total packages to the table. Hough can actually act and dance quite well, but every time the film makes her sing it’s positively cringe inducing (with the exception of a mid-film rendition of Quarterflash’s torch song “Harden My Heart” with an assist from Mary J. Blige that admittedly kills). Boneta, on the other hand, has a fine singing voice, but absolutely no real acting muscles. It might be Shankman’s way of elbowing the audience in the ribs to make them realize these two are made for each other, but when the film has to concern itself primarily with these two characters, it leaves a hole where the heart should be.
Luckily, Glam Metal was always about the actual theatrics of something rather than actual technical mastery of an art, so Shankman and the film’s three writers give a cast of real pros some secondary characters to play that allow them to really make something out of nothing. As the owner and manager of the bar, respectively, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand manage to have some great chemistry with one another, and they have the only real subplot to have a satisfying and somewhat surprising payoff. There’s the aging rock God Stacee Jaxx, played by Tom Cruise with great, boozy aplomb, upon whose unreliability and eccentricity the venue’s future rides, and who has to contend with screaming fans, his own demons, and unscrupulous manager (Paul Giamatti), and a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Ackerman) sent to document his final concert with his former band before going solo. There’s the Tipper Gore substitute, here played to the absolute hilt by Catherine Zeta-Jones who gets the best musical number of the whole film by covering Pat Benntar, and her Reagan-ish husband and soon to be mayor (Bryan Cranston, who’s good, but somewhat wasted here as he always seems to be in films) who want to close down the Bourbon for good.
There isn’t a weak link among the supporting players with all of them bringing their A-game to roles that might not entirely deserve the effort since they’re all essentially only play roles in an extended mix tape that even dudes that still own Pontiac Firebirds will probably scoff at. The scattershot tone of the narrative (which could be a problem with the stage version for all I know, since I haven’t seen it) makes the audience member feel almost like a drunk mingling at a party, drifting in and out of conversations so they only hear the good parts and the highlights. It also leads to the film’s identity crisis. It knows it’s a musical, but does it want to be an accurate period piece, a piss take, camp, high art, commentary, or homage?
None of it entirely matters because Shankman has adopted Glam’s style-over-substance edict, meaning that the musical numbers and set pieces are given centre stage here. While some of the songs quite dubiously explain the ways characters are feeling, the clear emphasis here are on the novelty and nostalgia of hearing the songs themselves rather than them actually being good. It’s hard to believe that anyone on screen is actually singing these songs since they’re autotuned to death, especially Hough and Cruise, who has his best sequence (an sex scene on an air hockey table while singing some Foreigner) somewhat ruined by his voice sounding completely unnatural. I know they are actually attempting to sing and that much like how Hair Metalers weren’t good musicians, Shankman purposely hired actors for most of the roles. With the exception of Boneta, Jones, and Brand the cast has to rely on theatrics to really get the point across, which, you know, really seems like the point. The scenes themselves do hold a certain kind joie de vivre in their depictions of beer and sweat soaked Bacchanalia.
The film’s main love story ends up being handled in as half-assed a way as possible, but in this loving ode to 80s cheese the onus is never on the journey or even how to get there. It’s on watching just how ridiculous it all looks and kind of equally laughing both at and with the movie. The abundance of unnecessary characters and plot points and the film’s knowing sense of frivolity sometimes go together like oil and water, but much like the much derided musical sub-genre it sets out to represent, it’s not without a shaggy dog kind of charm. And in that sense, it’s actually pretty entertaining for fans looking to get their leg warmers and leather pants out of mothballs or for anyone not willing to give the film a second thought. It’s actually pretty entertaining once you get past the awkward opening. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why.