Personally, I didn’t find the film to be quite the atrocity I had feared. But I still couldn’t get past a central flaw the cannier reviewers (including our own Justin Strout) have touched on: It’s a musical, but the music is all wrong.
Well, maybe not entirely wrong. Some of the mash-ups are cute, and the lyrics occasionally bear some resemblance to the action transpiring on screen. The actual music cues, however, observe little to no distinction between the so-called hair metal of the late 1980s and the mainstream FM rock of half a decade earlier.
While the story is set in an L.A. metal joint in 1987, actual habitués of the scene like Poison and Guns n’ Roses have to split the soundtrack with the likes of Journey, Night Ranger and ZZZ Sleepwagon. (The latter’s Kevin Cronin even gets a brief cameo.) Romantic lead Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) works at the club and dreams of playing its stage himself, but he’s a remarkably clean-cut young fellow with a penchant for breaking out into Foreigner ballads whenever he loses his heart. With tastes like those, he wouldn’t be allowed into his own establishment as a patron, let alone as an employee.
In the film’s climactic face-off, a bunch of anti-rock housewives angrily confront the customers and other supporters of the club. The wives belt out Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” while the “rock kids” (including the aforementioned Cronin, apparently moments away from mummification) counter them with a rousing chorus of Starship’s “We Built This City.” Talk about your role reversal; it’s as if Dee Snider had testified for the government at those PMRC hearings.
I didn’t see the stage version of Rock of Ages when I was living in New York, precisely because of its obvious conceptual haphazardness. So I’m not sure if I should credit Adam Shankman, the director of the film adaptation, for trying to up the believability quotient via art direction. Whoever’s responsible, the picture frame is often full of album covers and posters of the groups we should be hearing and aren’t. (I caught more references to Jetboy during the course of the movie than I did at any point during the actual 1980s.) But even this tactic sometimes comes up short. At one point, Boneta’s Drew is shown sitting in his bedroom and picking out yet another plaintive ballad on an acoustic guitar. On his wall is a poster of erstwhile Hanoi Rocks frontman Mike Monroe; swathed across his nubile torso is a baseball jersey advertising Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Damn, why not just work in a Georgie Jessel Fan Club button and cover all the bases?
It almost doesn’t matter if the hazy focus of Rock of Ages is down to ignorance or just cynical condescension, since there was little commercial impetus for anybody to get it right in the first place. As a dramatic form, the jukebox musical is the wedding reception of the professional theater, and no DJ ever kept a wedding party happy with a nonstop stream of Bang Tango. Sooner or later, Aunt Jenny is going to want to get good and drunk and embarrass herself on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
So why not tell a story that could work in organically all of the mainstream ’80s hits the Rock of Ages crew needed to use to make their nut? Maybe because that show already exists, and it’s called (to keep the metaphor of the last paragraph going) The Wedding Singer. And if you want to see a truly informed and funny take on the subject matter picked at in Rock of Ages, that exists, too: It’s called every concert Steel Panther performs in the course of a year.
Look, I know it sounds silly to nitpick this sort of trivia. Hair metal was inherently disposable entertainment that’s now viewed as a mere rite of passage even by many of us who loved it. But the bigger concern here is that a culture that can’t be bothered to remember accurately the pop cheese of the last generation also isn’t going to retain the really important stuff for more than five minutes. And that kind of mass amnesia opens the door to truly destructive stupidity -- like handing a sweeping electoral mandate to the same political party that nearly destroyed your country just 24 months previous. A nation that allowed the GOP a second act in 2010 isn’t going to see anything absurd in the depiction of a barely postpubescent “rock chick” singing Quarterflash songs on the Sunset Strip in 1987.
Or, to put it another way, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to remix it.