What does a small town girl who's living in a lonely world in 1987 do with her dreams of making it as a rock singer? For Oklahoman Sherrie Christian, it means packing a suitcase with her favorite albums, getting on a bus and heading for L.A.'s Sunset Strip in search of FAME.
Sherrie's barely stepped off the Greyhound when her cherished dreams of rock stardom come under assault, though. Prostitutes heckle her. A thug steals her suitcase.
Maybe L.A.'s not paradise city after all.
But someone notices. Drew, a barback and another would-be rock star at the Strip's most infamous club, The Bourbon, takes heed of Sherrie's plight. In a blink, he's introduced her to the club's world-weary owner, Dennis Dupree, and gotten her a job as a waitress. Even better, Sherrie lands the job just one day before the farewell show of legendary rock band Arsenal, which is fronted by the even more legendary Stacee Jaxx.
Who cares if the City of Angels is full of devils! Sherrie's dreams are coming true as she and Drew fall in love … and get to meet their hero, Stacee Jaxx.
Not everyone comes to the Sunset Strip to get famous, of course. Some come to get rich. For Patricia Whitmore, wife of new Los Angeles mayor Mike Whitmore, the Strip represents unrealized potential—as a shopping district. In the way? All those raucous rock clubs.
So Patricia makes common cause with a group of steamed-up church ladies bent upon putting The Bourbon and its ilk out of business. And they're even more determined to let the clubs' performers know where they're headed if they don't amend their ways: "ROCKERS BURN IN HELL," one protester's placard reads.
Threats of eternal damnation not withstanding, Sherrie, Drew and virtually everyone else in this adaptation of the hit Broadway musical—featuring songs from Def Leppard, Poison, Night Ranger, Bon Jovi and Pat Benatar, among others—realizes that there's only one response to adversity when your dreams are on the line: Don't stop believing.
Rock of Ages is not a Disney movie. But its story exhibits an irrepressible optimism that smacks of the "follow your dreams" messages a typical Disney flick might have. Sherrie and Drew take detours from their core musical dreams (she ends up working as a stripper, and he fronts a boy band), but both realize how much they've compromised. And the woman who recruits Sherrie to work at The Venus Club for Gentlemen eventually tells her that she won't find love there, implying that she needs to leave before stripping destroys her ability to love.
Elsewhere, rock icon Stacee Jaxx wrestles with the burden of being a sex symbol and rock "god." All the casual sex he's having leaves him empty and wanting something more permanent. His relationship with a Rolling Stone writer named Constance Sack has a strong sexual component, but Jaxx says he wants to be with her because she was the only one willing to tell him the truth about his immaturity. Jaxx also tries to make things right with Bourbon owner Dennis Dupree after the singer's manager bilks Dupree out of thousands of dollars.
Even though Rock of Ages is drenched in sexual imagery, it earnestly suggests that real, faithful love to one person is both possible and an ideal worth clinging to. Multiple characters affirm that love matters more than fame and fortune.
The church ladies picket The Bourbon with signs condemning rock 'n' rollers to an afterlife of fiery torment. Over the din of their protest at one point we hear someone say she'll "pray that you'll be saved."
Patricia Whitworth, for her part, seems to be a church member. She promises her husband that she'll rally church groups across L.A. against the Strip's music clubs. And on TV she says, "Let's reclaim the Strip for the God-fearing citizens of Los Angeles." But she's clearly motivated by greed, not any sort of genuine spiritual conviction about rock's evil.
One scene involves her whipping the women at church into a lusty, self-righteous frenzy—which manifests itself, oddly, with a hastily assembled performance of Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." Their hip-thrusting and sensual dancing not so subtly suggests that these women are all sexually repressed hypocrites, not to mention ridiculous caricatures. Someone at The Bourbon labels them the "twisted sisters of piety."
Stacee Jaxx's is repeatedly called a Satanist. Dennis Dupree's assistant, Lonny, tells a story about the time Jaxx skipped a Super Bowl halftime show because he was involved in a bizarre Satanic ceremony that involved sewing shut women's vaginas. Lonny then asks why on earth Satan would want to sew up any woman's anatomy. Someone quips, "Stacee Jaxx is god."
Dennis (rightly) guesses that Sherrie once sang in a church choir. The Whitesnake song "Here I Go Again" includes the line, "Oh Lord, I pray you'll give me strength carry on."
Plunging necklines and short skirts are the norm for Sherrie and other women. A beach scene pictures her in a bikini. Working as a waitress, Sherrie has her backside repeatedly grabbed by male customers. Working as a stripper, she gets down to panties and skimpy bras as she (and others) pole dance erotically in multiple scenes. The madam-like head of the club, a woman named Justice, feeds Sherrie the line that when a woman is on stage, dancing, she's in a position of power because she's in complete control. Elsewhere, though, Justice admits that stripping can be a damaging thing for a woman. The Venus Club has a long hallway full of topless classical Venus statues.
As for Stacee Jaxx, he's never without a barely dressed vixen or three to provide him sexual pleasure. One scene has him waking up with a trio of women. And he has two sexual encounters with Constance. In the first, they strip down to skivvies and have an odd dance/foreplay encounter that mimes explicit sexual movements. (The scene includes him spreading her legs and putting his face close to her underwear-clad backside.) In their second encounter they practically attack each other in a bar bathroom (with someone else sitting in a stall that opens unexpectedly).
Jaxx often greets women by groping their breasts and making comments about how they feel. (Even his pet baboon grabs a woman's rear.) Jaxx is pictured in backside-revealing chaps and wears a dragon-like codpiece with the creature spitting fire in a suggestive manner. Several of his kissing scenes include close-ups of intertwined tongues.
Musical montages imply that Sherrie and Drew have sex. The camera shows them in bed together as her shirt is removed, exposing her bra. (She's on top of him.) They kiss multiple times. Drew dumps Sherrie because he wrongly thinks she slept with Stacee.
Patricia's husband is having an affair with his assistant, and we watch his expressions as she spanks him with a ruler. Dennis and his assistant turn out to be closeted gays who've been in lust since they met. They sing REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling" and kiss.
Verbal reference is made to oral sex. Patricia turns up topless (with her chest covered by Jaxx's arm) in a liner-notes photo. Drew sprays his crotch with cologne. A band is named Concrete Balls. Suggestive songs include Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me," Poison's "Nothin' But a Good Time" and Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane." The latter, which plays during the credits, includes the lyrics, "The b‑‑ch is hungry/She needs to tell/So give her inches/And feed her well."
Someone gets tossed off The Bourbon's stage. Sherrie slaps Drew. Constance rolls off of Stacee Jaxx and falls to the floor. Jaxx's baboon destroys office furniture. Policemen slam a fleeing criminal against a wall.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. Half a dozen s-words. Characters exclaim "god" or "oh my god" about a dozen times. Jesus' name is misused once. There are one or two uses each of "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "douche." We see two obscene hand gestures.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jaxx drinks a lot, and we repeatedly see him draining bottles of whiskey and Scotch. Many if not most of the other scenes involve people at The Bourbon and The Venus Club consuming beer, wine coolers, shots, Scotch and brandy.
Other Negative Elements
Jaxx urinates (offscreen) on his manager's pants. Drew sings part of a song while going to the bathroom. Lonny is shown in a bathroom stall, perhaps drunk, with toilet paper in his mouth and holding a toilet-cleaning brush. He says something nasty about "Margaret Thatcher's bunghole."
Before a Bourbon performance, Dennis says, "This place is about to become a sea of sweat, ear-shattering music and puke."
I'm not sure I've encountered a movie recently that stomps on the nostalgia button quite at hard as Rock of Ages does. For those who came of age in the '80s, myself included, the film's appropriation of so many massive rock hits is sure to invite a wistful smile or two. As flickfilosopher.com reviewer Mary Ann Johanson writes, "I wanted to run home and listen to a lot of Def Leppard and Journey and such after Rock of Ages."
Now allow me to begin this conclusion again:
I'm not sure I've encountered a movie recently that stomps on the salacious hyperbole button quite at hard as Rock of Ages does. It lays hold of every '80s rock star cliché, every debauched tale of Behind the Music excess (sans drug use), and amps them up to circus-like levels. (There's even a baboon!)
Tom Cruise inhabits the role of Stacee Jaxx, transforming himself into a bizarrely compelling, sex-enslaved rock god. But the fact that he's not very satisfied with all that promiscuity doesn't change the fact that viewers get an eyeful of flesh along the way. The same dynamic is at work with poor Sherrie's decision to become a stripper. The film tells us it's not her best career move—even as a whole troupe of pole dancers spins and writhes.
Then there's the uptight depiction of condemning Christian women who secretly long to indulge their own lusty impulses. Suffice it to say that people of faith don't come across as anything more than loudmouthed, cardboard-cutout hypocrites here. And as for Dennis and Lonny's homosexual relationship, well, that's just something else we're supposed to have a laugh about.
For all that, though, Rock of Ages is so ridiculously over the top, so utterly, cheesily campy, that you might be tempted to just enjoy those old songs and not think too critically about all that cartoony carnality. After all, the two nice kids get together in the end. Does it really matter that the hometown girl from Oklahoma has to work at a strip club before we get the whole happily-ever-after ending? She comes to her senses eventually, right?
It's nothin' but a good time. Right?!
But that's just the problem. "Feel good" entertainment that mixes the emotional payoffs with the sleaze and the cheese have an insidious way of foolin' us into ignoring the ugliness of the material generating those good feelings.