There’s no question superb movies can be made about disreputable people or subjects. (“The Godfather” isn’t beloved because audiences condone the behavior of mobsters — it’s because of the greatness of the storytelling.) So I walked into “Rock of Ages” with an open mind, even though I’m not a fan of the music that’s celebrated in the film. Based on Chris D’Arienzo’s original stage show, “Rock of Ages” is a musical set in Los Angeles in 1987 during the height of hair-metal, with the characters singing a slew of ‘80s tunes from bands like Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Foreigner and others. And while the movie doesn’t work for plenty of reasons, one of its elements that most annoyed me was its treatment of its milieu. It’s fine if “Rock of Ages” likes that era’s rock music more than I do. But at least it should be honest about how terrible — and, frankly, kinda evil — that music was.
To start with, I should mention that I haven’t seen the original musical, so I can only speak for the film adaptation. But what’s on display is a collection of different types of rock music from the ‘80s — pop-metal, arena rock — that didn’t necessarily have a lot in common, except for the fact that it was popular and on the radio a lot. Importantly, its other commonality was that it was hopelessly corporate. If rock ‘n’ roll was at one time thought of as a dangerous cultural tool used by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to corrupt the youth of America, by the ‘80s it had become a safe, marketable commodity that record labels were churning out with alarming regularity. Sappy, pretty power ballads like “I Want to Know What Love Is” or defanged come-ons such as “Talk Dirty to Me” were the sound of the age, but there was nothing rebellious or risky about these songs: They were part of a user-friendly formula that would sell. It was all just entertainment.
It’s not that “Rock of Ages” needs to share my opinion on these songs, but the film’s fundamental problem is that it has no sense of irony or self-awareness about this disposable music. For the most part, the ‘80s hits are delivered with disturbing earnestness, as if there really is some wisdom in, for example, Extreme’s syrupy “More Than Words,” which actually was on the band’s 1990 album but nonetheless fits in just fine with the other tunes. And because there’s a sincerity to the performance of these old songs — Tom Cruise in particular is utterly dynamic as the rock god Stacee Jaxx — there comes with it a tacit approval of the music. To equate it to modern times, it would be like a movie musical that paid tribute to a genre or group that’s incredibly uncool to like, which, depending on your disposition, might be Insane Clown Posse or Rebecca Black. But “Rock of Ages” doesn’t seem aware of this fact: It treats these songs as if they’re actually good.
More unsettling, though, is how “Rock of Ages” glibly glosses over the ugly sexism of the period. While it’s true not every band from the era — or even every band featured in the film — participated in the trend, the ‘80s rock scene was a time when groups figured out that putting scantily clad babes in their videos was a great way to get them noticed. And so you had Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” and Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” which debased women in order to sell to guys. Though they weren’t the first groups to do it, ‘80s hair-metal bands tended to write two types of songs: aggressive rockers about looking for a good time (which usually involved getting laid) or saccharine ballads about the one good girl who got away. To be fair, I know several women who love this era of music, but there’s always a bit of a tongue-in-cheek factor going on beneath the surface, presumably because they know these songs tend to treat ladies as sex toys. Mainstream ‘80s rock is escapist nonsense, they’ll argue, and one shouldn’t take it too seriously. Fine, so why don’t we just go ahead and make earnest musicals about fatty foods, lame reality television and all the other stuff that’s bad for us while we’re at it?
If “Rock of Ages” wants to celebrate bad music, that’s its prerogative, but I wish it at least had a basic understanding of history. The way the film tells it, ‘80s rock represented passion and authenticity in a way that other music of the time didn’t. But if you lived through the era, you knows that’s simply not true. (And it’s worth pointing out that the film’s two main stars, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, were actually born after 1987.) For anyone whose appreciation of music extends beyond enjoying the sounds of white dudes playing guitars and drums, the ‘80s was an exciting period for lots and lots of great music that wasn’t traditional rock. There was Prince merging R&B and funk with rock and pop. There was Madonna transforming disco for a new era. There was Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J and Public Enemy bringing hip-hop to the general public. And then there were metal groups like Metallica, who actually were restoring rock’s edginess by writing frankly about suicide, nuclear war and hypocrisy. But “Rock of Ages” isn’t paying attention to any of that — or if it is, it’s being snobby about it. (One of the film’s characters gets distracted from his rock ‘n’ roll ambitions by joining a New Kids on the Block-like boy band, which is meant to symbolize a soul-crushing loss of principle.) In Nick Pinkerton’s dead-on takedown of “Rock of Ages” in The Village Voice, he attributes this deficiency in the film’s thinking to racism, but for me it’s more a sign of a deeply lame rock-and-rock-alone philosophy that too many fans have. Basically, if a song doesn’t come from a group who looks like a rock band, then it’s not “real music.” I hate to break it to these people, but by the time Poison was topping the charts, rock music wasn’t really “real music” anymore: It was watered-down pop as synthetic and prepackaged as any New Kid on the Block copycat.
Dramas based on real stories will often get criticized for their airbrushing of history, which sometimes has to happen so that the film can have a happy ending or that the more problematic aspects of the protagonist’s personal story don’t cloud our admiration for him. But “Rock of Ages” sells a complete falsehood that you shouldn’t accept. To this movie’s way of thinking, there’s no difference between Warrant and Guns N’ Roses, which isn’t the case at all. The same year that this movie is set, Guns N’ Roses released “Appetite for Destruction,” and while they definitely were part of L.A’s Sunset Strip scene depicted in the film, there was an unique intensity and danger to their music, and frontman Axl Rose’s lyrics spoke honestly about the depravity and desperation of the period. “Appetite for Destruction” was a rebuke to the more pop-friendly calculation of other groups, and even though the album had monster hits, including the power ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” you could sense the passion and originality in every note. (Soon after, Nirvana and grunge would hammer the final nail into the corporate-rock coffin — at least for a time.) But “Rock of Ages” either isn’t aware or simply doesn’t care about such distinctions: As far as the movie is concerned, it’s all just eyeliner and big hair and fun fun fun. Sadly, the negligible bands praised in “Rock of Ages” are still with us in the form of groups like Nickelback or Hinder, who are all big, dumb rockers whose only selling point is that they’re not Justin Bieber. After watching “Rock of Ages,” I was reminded why nowadays I prefer Bieber. At least he’s not deluded enough to think he’s selling authenticity.