I’m a fan of 80s hair metal. I have nearly every one of the songs from this film’s soundtrack in my iTunes (performed by its original artist, of course). I’m also a Tom Cruise fan, and I’m not completely opposed to musicals. So it’s safe to say I fit pretty nicely into the demographic for Rock of Ages. But can the director of Hairspray successfully pull together an all-star cast and turn this Broadway musical into an entertaining film?
It’s about a small town girl named Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) livin’ in a lonely world, who takes the midnight train to Los Angeles to become a singer. Within minutes of stepping off the bus, she meets a city boy named Drew (Diego Boneta) who is also an aspiring musician, and over the course of a few song-fueled days, they fall in love. The setting is the Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip, run by Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his lackey, Lonnie (Russell Brand). Rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is playing a show that will keep the club afloat, but with Jaxx’s greasy manager Paul (Paul Giamatti) looking to keep all the proceeds for himself and the mega-conservative mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) out to shut down the club, Dennis – and rock ‘n roll itself – is in trouble.
The plot is as broad as one would expect, considering most of the story is told through lyrics of songs written by different bands. The opening scene, for example, rolls through three songs before anyone speaks an actual word of dialogue, setting the tone for just how much music is utilized in this film. (Hint: it’s a crapload.) As a fan of these songs I was mostly OK with how they were portrayed, except for the “Glee”-style mashups, like “We Built This City/We’re Not Gonna Take It,” that the A-list actors totally butchered. You’d think someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won an Academy Award for her work in the musical Chicago, would at least be competent at singing and dancing, but she and Mary J. Blige – a professional singer, mind you – were easily the worst parts of the film. And listen, these songs have always been pop-oriented, so it’s hard to claim this movie is causing “the death of rock” with a few bad cover songs when half of these were cheesy power ballads to begin with.
That said, I ended up liking more songs than I didn’t by the end. Brand and Baldwin shared a touching duet that was unexpectedly excellent, and most of the songs by Boneta and Hough were well executed, if a bit calculated. Hough, as both a singer and an actress, seems more like she was manufactured to play this part instead of born to play it, as she’s just a bit too “perfect-looking” to be believed. (I realize this might come off as a ridiculous criticism, but true or not, there’s no shaking the feeling that she just stepped off a Disney assembly line.) Boneta is fine as the young rocker, with a solid voice and charisma to burn. Their love story, as ludicrous as it is, holds the film together and is more entertaining that some of the subplots involving much bigger stars. (Bryan Cranston is completely wasted as the mayor, for example.)
I’ve already revealed that I’m a Tom Cruise fan, so you’ll have to take this next part with a grain of salt, but I thought he was pretty great in this movie. Stacee Jaxx is the only character here with any real depth, a “slave to rock and roll” that spends half of his time wallowing in self-pity and the other half blasting out hits like “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” It’s an interesting glimpse into the mirror of a parallel universe, revealing a heightened reality in which the real life Tom Cruise didn’t experience a comeback from his days of couch hopping and perceived craziness. What would that version of Tom Cruise look like today? Stacee Jaxx is an exaggerated approximation, of course, but Cruise imbues him with a humanity that rounds him out as a character and makes him more than just one note (pun intended).
As a film, Rock of Ages is a solid match with the music it repackages: earnest, bombastic, and unapologetically cheesy at every turn. Though the movie’s tagline promises “nothin’ but a good time” and mostly delivers, you’ll likely encounter a few minutes of trouble in paradise (city). Until next time…