I don’t care who Tom Cruise sleeps with; man, woman, or beast, it’s his business. I don’t care what religion he worships or what beard he has contracted. Onscreen, he is gay, and I don’t mean that in the homosexual sense. I mean it in the sense that straight people do not have nearly as much fun as Tom Cruise. Seven years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger took major career risks to depict a real, loving, emotionally devastating gay relationship in Brokeback Mountain. But I would argue that Cruise, here, takes an even bolder risk: He’s a 50-year-old man coming off the biggest movie of his career, an Oscar winner, one of the most recognizable actors in the world, the star of Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia, and he’s singing showtune versions of terrible 80’s rock anthems, and he’s doing it fearlessly. This is Crazy-Cakes Cruise, the Tom Cruise that jumped on Oprah’s coach with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl who had just been given a pony for her birthday. I fucking love Tom Cruise for that, for throwing himself off the tallest building in the world in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, for rapping his white ass off in Tropic Thunder, and for the over-amped, over-choreographed rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in Rock of Ages. Say what you want about his acting skills, say what you want about him as a person, but Tom Cruise tries harder than any guy on the planet to please an audience, and it’s that effort, that zeal, and that determination that seeps into Rock of Ages, turning what is essentially High School Musical 4: The Glam Rock Years into one of the most uncool crowd-pleasing movies of the year.
Is it bad? Oh, God yes. It’s terrible. But so is Journey. Yet, that doesn’t stop you from belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” when you’re by yourself driving down the freeway at three in the morning. That’s essentially what Rock of Ages is: It’s Tom Cruise’s Risky Business home-alone dance party writ large and scored by fucking Def Leppard. There’s not a less cool movie on the planet. Appreciating it ironically would be like a hipster trying to burn out the sun with a glass of water. It’s pointless. You either hate this movie with every fiber of your overly critical soul, or you check that cynicism at the door and embrace it, fill in the last pocket of your secret shame chamber, and pump your goddamn fist like you don’t give a shit. If you show weakness, if you hide behind your cynicism for even a second, Rock of Ages will eat you up and crush you.
Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages is centered on a rock club, The Bourbon Room, in 1987. Stacee Jaxx is the burned out, blitzkrieged lead singer of the biggest rock band on the planet, Arsenal, and he’s about to take the stage for his last time before going solo at the club where he started it all: The Bourbon Room. That’s the backdrop for everything that happens in the movie. Julianne Hough is Sherrie, the Oklahoma girl who gets off the bus in L.A. and immediately lands a job at the Bourbon Room when Drew (Diego Boneta) — a barkeep and aspiring rock star — pulls her off the street after a mugging. They provide the small-town girl, big-city boy love story at the center of Rock of Ages. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin’s Dennis Dupree and his right-hand man, Lonny (Russell Brand) try to keep the Bourbon Room afloat in the face of religious protests from the mayor’s (Bryan Cranston) wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has a grudge against Stacee Jaxx. Cranston’s mayor is into rough sex-play, his wife is into Twisted Sister, and Dennis and Lonny are into each other (and if their REO Speedwagon duet doesn’t win you over, you have no soul, my friend).
The plot, however, is irrelevant. It’s about the songs, about moving the story along through cheesiest lyrics in the history of music. It’s the one genius of ’80s rock anthems; great musicians bury their emotions in themes, symbols, and lyrics meant to provoke certain feelings. Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Journey, Poison, Twisted Sister and the rest of the blue-collar ’80s musicians didn’t have that kind of lyrical talent: They spoke transparently, exposing all their vulnerabilities through lyrics that read like the scribbles on a teenager’s notebook. But there’s something noble and fearless to be said for that level of cheesy courageousness, and it translates in Rock of Ages into a soaring power ballad of a movie.
Furthermore, Shanmkan — working from a Broadway play — manages the impossible: He Disneyfies what is already toothless bubble gum glam and strips it of what few hard edges existed, turning it into one gloriously huge gay rock musical. But that’s what I adored about Rock of Ages; it’s a haters-gonnna-hate kind of movie. There’s no pretense. It’s raw, corporate earnestness. It embraces the excess, multiplies it, and if you’re willing to go along, it is a shameful, exhilarating experience that you’ll probably never admit to loving, even though you will. But if you try to act too cool for it, Rock of Ages will murder you in your sleep. It’s a fun movie, and having fun is almost never cool.