Rock of Ages
Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Åkerman, Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 15 Jun 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 15 Jun 2012 (General release); 2012)
Dismiss them outright or complain about the lack of legitimate metal edge, but the teased yet talented bands that made LA’s Sunset Strip a hotbed of glitter and spandex sex appeal in the ‘80s had legitimate chops. They could play their instruments, wrote some amazing (if often cheesy) rock anthems, and spoke to an audience tired of drudge and dinosaurs. Perfect for the burgeoning MTV video-fication of the industry and quickly passing their sell date, these groups came to Cali to live the revised American dream, and their tacky drag look can’t take away their practiced party determination. So it’s with a sad heart that the new ‘musical,’ Rock of Ages, turns their years of struggle into a shoddy Glee-lite setlist. There are some redeeming moments here, but they can’t compete with the complete disdain for the source.
Altered significantly from the jukebox stage spectacle it is based on, we have the story of a small town Oklahoma girl named Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) who is running away to LA to find fame and fortune. All she ends up discovering is a mugger outside the famed Bourbon Room. Run by ex-hippy promoter Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his right hand man, Lonny (Russell Brand), it’s the center of the Strip’s rock ‘n’ roll revival. As luck would have it, barman Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) saves the day, and the two become fast friends. He even gets her a job at the Bourbon…not that her employment is guaranteed to last.
See, Dennis is in deep with the tax man and needs a miracle to save his club. As luck would have it, mega-super-duper star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) has agreed to play his final show as a member of the band Arsenal at the Bourbon. It’s all been arranged by the debauched idol’s manipulative manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti). Unfortunately, the pro-Christian activist wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the newly elected Mayor (Bryan Cranston) wants to close down the Bourbon good. Not only does she think her agenda will forward her husband’s political ambitions, but she has her own personal reasons for getting back at Stacee Jaxx. Along the way, Sherrie and Drew fall in and out of love…and visa versa.
Like a bad mixtape created by the abominable Ark Music Factory, Rock of Ages is all flash and very, VERY little substance. It’s akin to every music video ever made during hair metal’s heyday drenched in the kind of wholesome smarm that only a clueless director can devise. Indeed, when choreographer turned filmmaker Adam Shankman got hold of this Broadway box office draw, he decided to eviscerate it. Gone is the subplot involving Stacee, Sherrie, and statutory rape. In its place is some weird PMRC piffle, a stunted sense of casting, and a weird undercurrent of disrespect. Say what you will about Dee Snide and Twisted Sister, but they don’t deserve Diego Boneta’s soulless reading of their epic call to arms, “I Wanna Rock!”
It’s a problem that plagues Rock of Ages. From the moment Ms. Hough opens her Greyhound bus beleaguered trap to offer up a thin, reedy interpretation of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” you either buy this baloney or you cringe. Things get a little better when Baldwin and Brand show up. They’re like a comedy team without a decent set of jokes to forward their fun. Later on, soul diva Mary J. Blige makes an appearance to belt out a few tunes and run one of the most asexual strip clubs ever, while Mrs. Michael Douglas is reduced to a strange dragon lady lament with Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Of all the talent brought on to showcase this collection of future Time Life tracks, only one shines so bright he threatens to dismantle the entire film single handedly.
Yes, Tom Cruise is that good. Nay, he is terrific. He’s Oscar worthy, a Best Supporting Actor candidate from the moment his Stacee Jaxx shows up like Axel Rose mired in mushrooms. With a pet monkey at his side and an entourage consisting of every groupie available, he’s walking, talking, screwing, singing sex appeal. At the time his inclusion was announced, many felt the international superstar would ruin an already established property. Instead, he saves it, becoming one of the few reasons to actually brave this emasculated mess. Sure, on stage, this was nothing more than a meta-fairy tale for the Reagan revivalists. Thanks to Cruise’s turn as Jaxx, the film version finds a more serious subject.
In fact, Rock of Ages could have been wholly rewritten to become a statement of Stacee’s rise and slow, struggling fade. Cruise carries such weight with his interpretation of the character that we want more, not less, of his crazy cool. During the infamous sex romp to “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the actor achieves the rare combination of seriousness and satire. We know that his life is women, drugs, and music, but in this moment, they all come together in a way that’s comic and compelling. This is Stacee Jaxx’s life, and nothing, not his slow burn whisper or lack of sobriety can change that. More compellingly, Cruise has an amazing onstage presence that allows him to match, or better, the showcase selections of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Yes, the man can sing.
Unfortunately, Stacee is an opening act, not a headliner, and Rock of Ages suffers because of it. We don’t care about Sherrie and Drew’s impending relationship since we’re pretty sure it will survive her stint as a “dancer” and his trials as a member of a boy band. The ‘surprise’ about Dennis and Lonny may offer up some laughs, but their cheap and hollow. Zeta-Jones may shimmy like your Slayer-obsessed sister, but her villainy has no bite, and the rest of the cast appears perplexed as to the tone and approach to the material. Shankman’s shaky resume should have forewarned of such an issue. After all, he’s responsible for such misguided messes as The Pacifier and Cheaper By the Dozen 2. For all its faults, hair metal deserves better. Cruise gets it. The rest of Rock of Ages doesn’t.