If the upcoming movie adaptation of Rock of Ages is on your radar, then you’ve probably seen this trailer…
…and are at least familiar with the broad outline of the plot of the original stage musical:
Set in LA’s infamous Sunset Strip in 1987, Rock of Ages tells the story of Drew, a boy from South Detroit, and Sherrie, a small-town girl, both in LA to chase their dreams of making it big and falling in love. Rock of Ages takes you back to the times of big bands with big egos playing big guitar solos and sporting even bigger hair!
But you may not be aware of a major change in the plot: in the stage version (which I saw recently), the owners of the Bourbon Room rock club face off against greedy real estate developers who want to bulldoze the seedy Sunset Strip and replace it with “clean living.” As you can see in the trailer, these developers are replaced by a pack of Bible-thumping prudes who oppose the “sex, hateful music, and sex” of the Bourbon Lounge as epitomized by rock god Stacee Jaxx.
Lord, have mercy! What’s going on here? Why the change in villains, and pray tell me, what does it mean?
We Built This City on Rock and Roll
First, let’s unpack the conflict of the stage musical a little more. Is it a simple story of corporate greed run amok, similar to what we saw in The Muppets? Is it a simple story of the downtrodden 99% rising up against the 1%, similar to what we saw in Newsies? It’s actually neither. It’s really about the importance of urban planning.
No, seriously. Allow me to explain. In the brief synopsis above, I left out a couple of important details: 1) the developers are German and 2) they effectively bribe the mayor of Los Angeles to gain approval for their project and the eminent domain property seizures that spell doom for the Bourbon Room. As far as I know, their portrayal as Germans isn’t connected to any specific historical threat of German real estate developers (if they were going for an existential overseas threat from the 80’s, the Japanese would have been a more appropriate choice). Instead, it’s done to accentuate their “other-ness”: they’re not of the community and have no interest in understanding its values. They bring their predisposed ideas about what’s best for people (and what will make them rich). As for the significance of including the bribing of the mayor and the eminent domain property seizures in the stage show, they show how the political process that’s meant to protect local communities from bulldozers has been corrupted and circumvented by moneyed interests.
Imperious developers ignore local contexts, use their money to influence political support for their plans and steamroll opposition, and destroy unique local communities. I could go on all day about this, but instead, I’ll point you to the Wikipedia articles on Le Corbusier and Robert Moses and leave it at that.
Back to what the Rock of Ages stage version is about: it’s about the importance of urban planning on a more micro level, but on a more macro level, it’s about the ability of hegemonic forces like deep-pocketed corporations and governments to squelch the artistic expression of unique local culture and replace it with stifling homogeneity under the guise of “economic development.”
So why exactly was all of this discarded for the movie version?
Sister Christian, Overtime Has Come
Based on the trailer, the movie tells a simpler story than the one I outlined above. Bible-thumping prudes hate rock ‘n’ roll. They don’t want people to party, to get laid, to play awesome rock music, or otherwise have a good time. These culture warriors have roots in the Tipper Gore-instigated Senate hearings on the subject matter of pop music, which led to the awesome sight of Dee Snider testifying before Congress:
Twenty years prior, Christian groups were burning Beatles records:
And on top of this cultural legacy of conservative opposition to the content of pop music, we have our current conservative culture warriors who generally oppose sex and having a good time:
These are all good reasons for making the villain of Rock of Ages a Bible-thumping prude, but they don’t give us a reason for making the villain a Bible-thumping prude at the expense of the greedy developers and the message on cultural homogenization brought on by poor urban planning and corporate/government greed.
Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the culture war story would be more relatable and appealing to a 2012 audience than that of the greedy developers. The culture war has a more specific set of symbols, institutions, and leaders than the more amorphous concept of “greedy developers” and will therefore resonate more with viewers.
I mostly buy this justification, but I also can’t help but consider a more cynical motive: in becoming a major motion picture, Rock of Ages is now part of the “movie industry,” which is one of those corporate hegemonic forces that spreads stifling cultural homogeneity. When the moviemakers realized that this was at odds with the central conflict of the stage version, they rewrote the nature of the villain in a way that both removed this conflict and setup the movie industry as being on the same side of the scrappy Bourbon Room owners. Sure, Hollywood may be an agent of cultural homogeneity, but at least they want you to have sex and rock out. You know who wants to prevent you from having sex and rocking out? The Bible-thumping prudes.
Any Way You Want It
We’ll have to wait until June to see how exactly this new story gets told in the movie version, but until then, we can debate the finer points of urban planning, the culture wars, the hegemonic forces of stifling cultural homogenization, and monster guitar riffs.
So what do you think? Is the stage version really about bad development policies? Will the movie’s culture war theme resonate more with the audience than German real estate developers? And most importantly, why are we still taking it, when Twisted Sister said almost twenty years ago that we are most definitely not going to take it anymore?