The Horatio Alger, up-by-your-bootstraps, orphan to millionaire myth arose in American culture around the same time capitalism and industrialization did. With ingenuity, solid work ethic, and perhaps a little bit of ruthlessness, the story goes, you can work your way to the head of the line. Along with this concept of success arose the notion of conspicuous consumption. It wasn’t enough to become rich, argued the Gilded Age theory. You had to show off how rich you were. You had to be seen spending your millions, often in the most lavish way possible. If business success wasn’t right for you, though, there was always Hollywood, and later, rock and roll and computers. And so, names like Carnegie and Wayne, Presley and Jobs became folk heroes. Stories swirled around them, spurred on by images of lavish parties at estates the size of small villages, fleets of cars, and collections of art. Rumors replaced reality. Legend was printed as fact.
These trends arose in the Gilded Age and in the early 20th century before falling out of fashion. They were once again in vogue in the 1980s, when greed was good, Donald Trump was a role model and television was dedicated to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The soundtrack to the era was on one hand confectionary pop like Whitney Houston and Debbie Gibson and arena rock on the other. Arena rock, with its distant cousin hair metal, was excess in sonic form. Big and loud, prone to guitar solos, with single-entendre lyrics and often featuring a symphony orchestra or two, arena rock blew up the Horatio Alger myth beyond caricature. Artists like Journey, Boston, Kansas, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Poison, Ratt, Night Ranger and Vixen celebrated this new version of the Alger myth. Here, the bootstrap became a guitar strap, and the legend of the rock band on the road searching for that one hit night after night, show after show, joined the pinstriped yuppie as one of the defining cultural figures of the age.
Along with the dominant force of the “rock god,” one of the most iconic faces of the 80s was film maverick Tom Cruise. Starting with 1983’s Risky Business and 1986’s Top Gun, Cruise became one of the biggest box office stars in history. He was himself an “up from nothing” success story, achieving global fame with sheer force of will and attacking each new role with a determined intensity. It is this same determined intensity that made him a cultural punch line just as swiftly, beginning with 2005’s summer horribilis where he jumped right from Oprah’s couch to fated marriage and children with the actress Katie Holmes. Seven years later, his marriage on the rocks and his career unsteady, Cruise would star as rock god Stacee Jaxx in an adaptation of the 2009 jukebox musical Rock of Ages. It was an unconventional move to be sure, but here, Cruise used his force of will and personal knowledge of international fame and worship to create an avatar of those years between Top Gun and Oprah’s couch, offering just not an eulogy for his career thus far, but for the particular kind of 80s excess celebrated in Rock of Ages.
Rock of Ages, whose director, Adam Shankman, previously adapted the musical Hairspray for film, begins with women chanting “Stacee! Stacee! Stacee!” These high-pitched, wanton chants indicate that Jaxx is a figure of desire, and their chants lead into Cruise’s slurred voice, introducing the first song of the film, “Paradise City” (originally by Guns ‘n’ Roses). Yet rather than cutting immediately to a scene of Jaxx and his band Arsenal on stage, the sound becomes tinny, distant, and heard through headphones. It’s revealed that the song is a recording, listened to on a Walkman by one of the film’s two leads, Sherrie, as she rides the bus to Los Angeles, chasing her dream. The audience’s first experience with Stacee Jaxx is therefore through other’s perceptions of him. Stacee is literally a voice without a face, allowing the characters to project onto him their desires and needs — much the way audiences do with their movie stars.
The song is further revealed to be a track on a live Arsenal album, Fallout, and Arsenal/Stacee Jaxx iconography is a recurring visual motif in Rock of Ages. Before the audience even sees Stacee Jaxx, and after as well, the viewer is treated to a near-constant barrage of Stacee Jaxx urban legends. Stories like these follow around any famous person; characters describe Jaxx as being everything from “the man who blew off the Super Bowl to attend a Satanic ritual” to a man who’s music made a mother’s son eat “the head off my neighbor’s horse.” This latter accusation comes as a group of concerned parents worship/criticize a poster of Jaxx resting on an altar. The poster is centered in the frame, and as the women criticize him, the camera cuts to close-ups of the poster, emphasizing Jaxx’s physical features — his hair, his tongue, his crotch. Jaxx is blamed for spreading one thing, and one thing only: sex, sex, and more sex. Yet these pictures and these legends remain largely ethereal, rumored about and writ large a la the stories that have followed Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and Cruise himself throughout their careers. As if to — like everything in Rock of Ages — oversell this point, Shankman includes a scene where Jaxx’s unscrupulous manager Paul Gill pretends to be speaking to Jaxx, when he is in fact speaking to empty air.
Shankman pays more attention to the physical memorabilia surrounding Jaxx’s music career. The record Fallout is almost always shot in close-up, emphasizing its tactile nature. In a scene set at a Tower Records, Sherri and Drew, her love interest, bond over the record as it fills the frame. Sherri calls it her “favorite record ever,” and Drew tells her about missing an Arsenal concert in his hometown. The record, like Jaxx himself, has taken on totemic, fetishistic qualities, but the myth of the rock god persists. “If I couldn’t see Stacee Jaxx,” Drew tells Sherri, “I wanted to be Stacee Jaxx.”
But what does it mean to be Stacee Jaxx? The first time viewers see Jaxx in the flesh, he is nothing but flesh, captured in a blurred, over the shoulder shot. The scene takes place in Jaxx’s dressing room, revealed in a slow tracking shot that captures snakes and gunshots alike. The room is lit low, with drums alternating alongside guitar wails on the soundtrack, emphasizing Jaxx’s decadence — a decadence that calls to mind the garish mansions of Robin Leach, and a decadence only emphasized by the first part of Stacee Jaxx viewers see clearly. It is his crotch, centered in the frame, and covered only by a pewter devil codpiece. The naked girls surrounding Jaxx crawl away, and Jaxx slowly rises, shirtless, pantless, as if everything hurts, as if he feels the weight of the world and people’s expectations with every step. Shankman chooses to keep Jaxx in the center of the frame, slowly pulling back as he stands, looking out at the world through squinted eyes. His bed is lit in reds, symbolizing that Jaxx, despite his wealth and fame, is in hell. The blue of a hot tub water’s plays across his face. Jaxx opens his arms, spreading them, crucified for our expectations of him. It is the rock god as literal Christ figure…and then Jaxx falls, face-first, into the water, less a baptism than a humiliation. Here is what excess brings, the scene says. Excess and decadence are their own hell. Here is what it is like to be Stacee Jaxx. Here is what it is like to be Tom Cruise. Here is fame.
The consequences of Jaxx’s oversized fame are further emphasized in one of the musical numbers where Cruise is the lead performer. One, a version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” is both preluded and provoked by Jaxx’s interview with a Rolling Stone reporter. Jaxx drops boilerplate interview catchphrases at first, eventually dropping off into non-sequitors. Cruise as Jaxx then sums up Jaxx and himself when he says, half in jest, half serious, “I know better than anyone [what it’s like to be me] because I live in here.” Jaxx stands to leave, but the reporter, dressed in white, challenges him. “What happens,” she asks, “when you realize you can’t get rid of Stacee Jaxx?” Her selection of words highlights the fact that celebrity is about persona: ‘Stacee Jaxx,’ like ‘Tom Cruise,’ is a role to play, a character. In this shot, the reporter is dressed in white, standing in the background, while Jaxx is in the foreground, dressed in black. Jaxx is spiritually dead. The angel is beckoning to heaven, begging him to confront what he has become — what he has lost.
During the following “Wanted Dead or Alive” number, Jaxx is almost constantly centered in the frame, constantly in motion. Shankman follows him with a reverse tracking shot, backing away as Jaxx moves ever forward towards the viewer. After striking another Jesus pose, Jaxx takes an empty stage — and suddenly, the viewer is inside Jaxx’s head, witnessing how Jaxx perceives the act of being a rock god to be hellish. The audience is lit in blue as he sings, the stage lit in red, flames and fire surrounding him. Near the end of this number, during the “imagination sequence,” Jaxx throws his hand out, reaching out towards the edge of frame. The camera focuses on his sweaty, physical frame, but it is hard not to be drawn to the look in his eyes. It is crazed, desperate. It is the look of a drowning man. During this sequence, several times, Jaxx/Cruise merge as Cruise breaks the fourth wall to look directly at the audience. We are complicit in this, he says. We have put him in this hell. Then, again, he falls flat off the stage, alone in an empty bar. Hellish projection and lonely reality have collided once more.
As Rock of Ages lumbers along, we learn that these projections of what other people want Jaxx to be (as he puts it, “ssssssssseex”) have crippled Jaxx from producing great music and left him the shell that walks around carrying a monkey named Hey Man. Jaxx admits that perhaps the only thing that can save him is “the perfect song, the perfect sound that will make you want to live forever.” And what is the pursuit of wealth, fame, fortune, legend, but the pursuit of immortality? Yet opulent mansions and towers made of gold and stock portfolios are ultimately meaningless, as are the physical elements of Jaxx’s life. What matters is the work — the music, or in this case, the performance. Shankman illustrates this in a musical number where Jaxx is shot in blue and the audience in red, reversing the hellish symbolism of earlier appearances. Jaxx remains at a distance, without close-ups blurry, illustrating that the act of performance and of singing is most important. Here, too, Jaxx points at the viewer, as if to emphasize the importance of artistic creation — that is the way to escape hell.
Finally, when Jaxx discovers that perfect song — Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” here credited as Drew’s creation — he is born anew. For the first time in the film, the camera slows down to follow him, gently pushing in as he falls back into the arms of his newfound love, the same Rolling Stone reporter who previously challenged him. As those familiar notes of what was once lambasted as corporate rock but has now become an American anthem of endurance play, the scene cuts to an arena. Jaxx is performing this “perfect song” with Arsenal. He’s taking up just enough space in the frame, not too far away, not too close, as in the two previous numbers, and he’s bathed in beautiful blue-white light. Jaxx has been re-baptized in the altar of rock and roll through the act of creating something — a point Shankman sells even further by cutting to a shot of the reporter, now pregnant with Jaxx’s child — that will last beyond him. And as he creates both song and child, Jaxx — Cruise — smiles for the first time. The rumors about Scientology and homosexuality, the mansions on the California coast and in the Hamptons, the Donald Trumps and the Mitt Romneys no longer matter now. What matters is the act of creation, the performance, the joy of acting for acting’s sake. What matters is the music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll, and may Tom Cruise play roles as weird as this for years to come.