Cast whatever aspersions you like at the teased-hair, spandex-clad rock 'n' roll of the '80s: base, superficial, oversexed, bleating loudly into the night without ever having much to say apart from the fact that sex, drugs and itself were all that was needed for a pretty great party.
Taking all that for granted, and ignoring for a moment the attraction of a little wanton hedonism for a culture anxious over economic strife, expanding militarism and the outbreak of HIV, and there's still one overriding factor that allowed the likes of Poison, Whitesnake and Twisted Sister to pack stadiums and arenas across the world: Their music was just catchy as hell.
To this day, you can still cue up Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" or Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" on any jukebox in America and be reasonably assured of a spontaneous singalong. Cue them up in a jukebox musical, as Chris D'Arienzo did in his Tony-nominated Broadway hit Rock of Ages — now adapted for the screen by director Adam Shankman — and you've got a dramatized mix tape with "guilty pleasure" scrawled on the label.
All the cerebral complaints you might have about the music apply equally to the film. It's silly, shallow, corny and polished to such a glossy sheen that it's likely to slip right back out of your brain the second the credits roll.
But just like the music, it's far more fun than it has any right being. To borrow from Poison's Bret Michaels, it ain't lookin' for nothin' but a good time, and that song's inclusion in the opening scenes is the movie's statement of purpose as much as that of the characters singing it.
Those characters, particularly the leads, are as flimsy and disposable as a cardboard record-store band display. But they're meant to be: When trying to mold a plot around songs with simplistic themes, the narrative sort of has to match.
To that end, the film opens in 1987 on a fresh-faced aspiring Midwestern singer, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), taking the midnight train (actually a bus) going anywhere (well, L.A., with hopes of fame and fortune). Her song, of course, is Night Ranger's "Sister Christian," and as the rest of the travelers join in on the anthemic "Motoring ..." chorus, the tongue-in-cheek tone is firmly established.
The Romeo to her Juliet, the David Coverdale to her Tawny Kitaen, is Drew (Diego Boneta), a barback at the Sunset Strip's Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey a Go Go); he's got rock star dreams but crippling stage fright. You know this story inside and out: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl amid much wrenching power balladry, boy gets girl back in rousing show-stopper.
The film's biggest problem isn't that predictability, but rather that this central romance, dependent on romantic leads with all the screen presence of an actual jukebox, is by far the most tedious of a number of interlocking pieces. Any time the lead couple's onscreen doing anything other than singing, thoughts turn to other, more entertaining strands: a posturing, hypocritical politician (Bryan Cranston) and his Tipper Gore-clone wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) on a moral crusade to take back the Strip by shuttering the Bourbon; the efforts of the hapless pair who run it (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand) to keep things afloat; and, presiding over everything, a rock demigod by the name of Stacie Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who's barely able to find his way out of a fog of scotch, women and his own towering self-regard to make it to the stage and perform.
When the film does succeed, it's in embracing its own silliness. Cruise, especially, channels the same scene-chewing absurdity that marked his turn in Tropic Thunder, and that film's writer, Justin Theroux, contributes much of the same irreverent, winking self awareness to this adaptation. This is a spoof of '80s rock culture as much as a celebration.
And for about 90 minutes, Rock of Ages largely succeeds in finding that good time it was looking for. Unfortunately, at just over two hours, it squanders much of that goodwill by the time the story of its bland young lovers has at long last been resolved. Like many of scraggly-haired metal dudes occupying the background of the film, it would benefit from a good trim.