There is a new sub-genre of musical: take a collection of popular songs and string them together with a story. Rock of Ages is the latest version of this, taking 80s rock music and setting it amid a simple boy meets girl story. Sherry comes to Hollywood from Oklahoma to become a singer. She meets Drew who is also an undiscovered singer. As they fall in love, they revel in the joys of music, but soon discover there may be compromises to be made along the way—compromises that may make them lose themselves in the search for fame. There are some subplots, including one involving anti-rock forces and church women, but they really never quite develop into much. The plot relies heavily on cliché and many of the characters are really cartoonish caricatures, I suspect by design. We aren’t expected to take any of this seriously.
This same approach has been taken in earlier films like Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, and Mamma Mia. While Moulin Rouge! brought in a variety of music (ranging from Rogers and Hammerstein to Kurt Cobain), the others use a narrow selection: 80s rock in Rock of Ages, The Beatles in Across the Universe, and ABBA in Mamma Mia. I think part of what helped Moulin Rouge! work was that the songs are chosen in service of the story. In the others the story seems to be just a way to tie the songs together. The story is only an excuse for moving from one song to the next.
I think the biggest problem with a film like this is that it removes the music from its origins and in so doing it degrades the music. The rock songs in Rock of Ages have lost the bite that made them popular. It is somewhat ironic that in the film, Drew’s compromise is to become part of a pop boy band in order to find an outlet. That is basically what the film does to the rock music that is incorporated into it—it brightens up the dark side of the music so that it will be more appealing to general audiences.
As I said above, I don’t think we’re expected to take much of this film seriously. It is designed to showcase the music (even though in a somewhat bastardized form). But within that is the moral wisdom of being true to oneself. As we see people hiding their true selves to gain some illusory goal such as fame or power, it is obvious that happiness is not found in molding ourselves to others’ expectations, but in holding true to our dreams and values. The nature of the film, though, is exactly the opposite of that message.