Rock of Ages is so stacked with clichés and tropes that it feels like a comprehensive overview of American mythology, as dictated by pop culture. Set in a backdrop of L.A. that looks very much like a backdrop, the film tells a story about an aging rock star attempting to resurrect his career. By the end of the film, he's done so, courtesy of American pop culture's most relevant song of the past decade — Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." As sung by Tom Cruise.
This is a movie about dreamers and up-and-comers and religious hypocrites and monkeys and strip clubs and puffy, pubic ponytails and dudes looking like ladies and "Nobody puts baby in the corner" references and Tom Cruise and tee-heeing over two men finding love. Mostly, though, it's a story about the pop culture phenomenon of celebrities doing karaoke. It's kitsch on kitsch.
"Believin'" comes with baggage, a chain of associations that run from the '80s to Monster to The Sopranos to Glee and shoot off from there. With any luck, the chain stops here. In Ages, Journey's standard is meant to do that thing that musicals' final numbers do and send you out on a high note. But along with that, there's a consciousness there that is typically absent from Broadway: These characters are not just singing a song, they're singing the last song. It's the song that validates the existence of several characters and, because its lines play off of the film's principles, it confirms the communal experience of pop music — the way it emotionally resounds throughout lives when it is working as it's intended.
Placing the most relevant ‘80s song at the end of the two hours of nostalgia bait is a manipulative move from director Adam Shankman, but with it comes an uncommon critique. For every earnest rendition of an oldie, Rock of Ages has several irreverent takes. For example, Cruise sings "I Wanna Know What Love Is" into Malin Ackerman's asshole. Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) takes a piss while he duets Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" with Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), who's one bathroom over, making her hair ‘80s-big. Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night" fuels an opulent strip-club (actually bikini bar, since this is PG-13) choreographed pole number, and indeed a titty bar is the perfect venue for Benatar's kind of hard schlock. Catherine Zeta-Jones' Tipper Gore-esque Patricia Whitmore leads a bunch of church ladies through a pew shimmy to "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," while the film cuts back and forth from her husband Mike (Bryan Cranston) being spanked by his mistress in the rectory, his hands bound by rosaries. Different songs mean different things to different people, and here, most of the time, they mean "hahahaha."
Rock of Ages does that wonderful thing that the very best camp does by frequently alternating the ambiguity of its intentions. We get that it's supposed to be cheesy because it's set at some point in the ‘80s, because the performances are utterly stilted and because the only thing sillier than the words coming out of the actors' mouths when they are singing are the words coming out of the actors' mouths when they are speaking. But like any film, it does ask for emotional investment in its by-the-numbers plot. It's opulent while looking like a mess – literally, its color saturation and rainbow of neon lighting are something out of Showgirls/Burlesqueesque. It feels like a disaster of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie proportions. But it's such a blast and it knows it.
You'll never look at a star singing that song you're about to stop loving the same way again. And whether Rock of Ages has complete dominion over what it skewers matters little because in the end it exposes just how ridiculous what we apparently hold dear is. At one point, Paul Giamatti's sleazy music exec character proclaims, "Rock is dead," and then a baboon named Hey Man who's wearing a camo hat punches him. Yep, that seems about right.