Rock of Ages

What does it mean “to rock?” On the surface, “to rock” seems to mean to live an indulgent life full of sex, drugs, alcohol, and loud music, despising any form of authority and eschewing societal responsibility. “To rock” is to, ostensibly, wallow in one’s basest desires and champion selfishness overall.

There is certainly quite a bit of sex, alcohol, and loud music in Rock of Ages. There are no drugs, and the sex is heavily suggestive rather than explicit lest the movie lose its box-office friendly PG-13 rating, but the rock and roll lifestyle is certainly the featured player in this ensemble musical set to the rock anthems of the 1980s. The key players – Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Malin Ackerman, and, most marketedly, Tom Cruise – are all auto-tuned to the max and, with only a couple of exceptions (Alec Baldwin, I’m looking at you), seem to be enjoying themselves.

I enjoyed myself too in the moments when the movie touched on the broad emotional palette stereotypical of the 1980s, a decade that brought us Journey, societal acceptance of neon, Richard Simmons, and John Cusack holding a boom box over his head in an act of lovestruck defiance. Rock of Ages is (I hope) purposefully silly, and it sometimes succeeds at this silliness. It at least moves fast enough to be diversionary even in its many imperfections. It feels, in the end, like a really long, intentionally ironic episode of Glee with Tom Cruise as a guest star.

The real star of the film is the music, unsurprisingly, and music supervisor Adam Anders (of Glee) has mashed together a lot of the 80’s most resilient hits in a fun and sing-a-long worthy way. The man is obviously very talented, and I hope better stories come his way for him to soundtrack with such gleeful abandon (pun totally intended).

(A quick side note, I wonder if our cultures current obsession with the 80s isn’t rooted in a longing for a time when we were economically vibrant and full of optimism and pride in ourselves and our country. Or maybe it’s simply nostalgia for the childhood of the generation now approaching middle-age, Generation X. A decade from now, are we going to see a wave of 90s nostalgia? Probably.)

But back to our original question – “What does it mean ‘to rock?'” since that is the question at the center of this Charms Blow Pop of a movie. “Rocking” is clearly a thing to be admired and aspired to in this movie. The greatest criticism one character can level at another is, “that’s not rock and roll,” and the goal of every character is “to rock” as hard as possible.

First of all, let’s examine what is and what is not “rocking.” To lie is to not rock. Relational infidelity is not rocking. Greed is anti-rock. Repression is unrockified. Cowards, quitters, and corporate sell-outs are decidedly non-rocky. On the other hand, generosity rocks. Fairness rocks. Taking chances rocks. Enthusiasm rocks. Truthfulness rocks. Hope rocks. Love rocks. Never stopping believing rocks.

I don’t know about you, but I want to rock.

And what about all the things that cause Christians to picket rock bands, things like the use of illicit substances, unchecked sexual activity, and indulgent lifestyles? Well, according to Rock of Ages‘ headliner, the exhibitionist Stacee Jaxx (played with entrancing gusto by Tom Cruise), rockers have to do those things because the public expects it from them. There is societal pressure to behave a certain way, play a certain role, to behave badly. What Rock of Ages‘ biggest star really wants is to be listened to, to be understood, and, ultimately, to be loved. He says it explicitly, and standing just outside the club where he says it are crowds of Christians who just want him to be quiet and go away.

That’s so not rock and roll.