I make zero excuses about the fact that I had a good time watching ROCK OF AGES. The big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical built around the music I grew up listening to and continue rocking out to every once in awhile is a lot of fun, with a lot of that credit going to my connection to the music and the fact that it still gets me every time I hear some of it. It’s incredibly difficult to find yourself not singing along to the movie when the tunes of Bon Jovi and Poison are working their way through your system (you’ll still find yourself doing it, just at a lesser volume than normal). However, that doesn’t disguise the fact that ROCK OF AGES isn’t a very good movie with a story that is virtually non-existent and minimal dialogue that really only serves to move from one song to another. Without the music, there’d be no reason to even bother with the film as there’s no there there beyond the production numbers. Making matters even worse, the screen version completely cuts the balls off what is a much darker rock and roll tale on stage. The seedier side of people of Los Angeles where not all dreams being chased come true is ignored in favor of happy endings for everyone from the bar owner to the rock star to the aspiring musician to… well, I did say everyone. ROCK OF AGES is absolutely a guilty pleasure film, and, if you were to watch it and tell me that it flat-out sucks, I’d have no gripe with what the movie did for you. But, when I can sit for two hours (and yes, the movie starts to feel its length about halfway through) and listen to the hits of REO Speedwagon, Extreme, Twisted Sister, Foreigner and Whitesnake, even in these GLEE-d up versions (I’ve a fan of that show, too), it’s hard to not find some enjoyment in that. Hell, I have a blast when I go out for karaoke… and this really isn’t any different, just with some bigger named, well-known participants unleashing on the mic.
The flick opens with Sherrie Christian (the bright-eyed Julianne Hough) – sounds ripe for some Steve Perry and Night Ranger musical accompaniment) – heading to L.A. on a bus to pursue her dreams of musical stardom only to be mugged of her records as she makes her way down the Sunset Strip. It’s a good thing she runs into rock star-to-be Drew (Diego Boneta) who just so happens to work at the famed rock club, The Bourbon Room, and can help get her a job, since, for some reason, she’s only brought along 17 bucks with her to try to make it. Then again, that’s probably more time taken to laying out the basics of these two characters’ stories than the movie does, because in the same amount of time, ROCK OF AGES has already blasted through a medley of “Paradise City,” “Sister Christian,” “Just Like Paradise” and “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” and that’s all in the opening few minutes.
Moving ahead, the Bourbon Room is counting on the final performance by the band Arsenal, fronted by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), to help them out of a sticky financial situation, as paying taxes seems to be so very un-rock and roll. There’s also a Rolling Stone journalist (Malin Akerman) looking to capture a big story on Jaxx splitting from the band and going solo, a Christian fundamentalist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) looking to help her mayor husband make good on his campaign promises to clean up the Strip starting with the Bourbon and a greasy manager (the bald yet ponytailed Paul Giamatti) looking to sign his next big act.
There are some nice pieces to ROCK OF AGES that doesn’t necessarily add up to a great sum. Boneta is the strongest male singing voice the movie has, but it’s too nice and smooth for numbers such as “I Wanna Rock.” It works with the softer tones of Foreigner and more Foreigner, but for something edgy once sung by Dee Snider, not quite. However, that’s the nature of a jukebox musical. Not all of the songs being used are tailor made for the voices singing them, especially when certain characters are spanning quite a few vocal ranges with their selections. But for every piece of ROCK OF AGES that does manage to work, there’s a glaring mistake that doesn’t. Hough manages to bring a certain type of innocence to Sherrie Christian and is quite capable of holding a tune, but when it comes time for the story to examine some of its darker ideas, Hough’s wholesome demeanor can’t help but shine through, which becomes problematic when she’s supposed to be playing someone down on their luck, who is now stripping at a gentlemen’s club, because they’re out of options (it’s also the most clothed strip club I’ve ever seen).
Alec Baldwin looks absolutely ridiculous as Bourbon owner Dennis Dupree, and his pairing with right-hand man Lonny (Russell Brand) makes for easily the most awkward and unnecessary musical number of the film. Bryan Cranston also makes an appearance as the cartoonish mayor with a propensity for being punished for being a bad boy, while Mary J. Blige shows up… well, really for no reason whatsoever. On the flip side, the villainous side of ROCK OF AGES is where the fun all seems to lie. You can’t help but embrace Giamatti’s loathsome Paul Gill, as he revels in his sleazy deal-making, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is delightfully over the top on her crusade against the sex, hateful music and sex of rock and roll, which she views as a disease.
But the film really belongs to Tom Cruise. First off, without his Stacee Jaxx, ROCK OF AGES would lose the very minimal story it does have, but more than that, his interaction with Akerman’s Constance Sack make for some interesting ideas about the state of music and the public’s projections of who a rock star/celebrity is and how they behave. There’s quite a bit of Axl Rose to be found in the reclusive, eccentric and unreliable Jaxx, and Cruise is able to bring it out without the character coming across as a caricature of all things negatively rock star we’ve perceived over the years… well, with the exception of having a monkey around, if for no other reason than audiences who might check out ROCK OF AGES most likely find monkeys cute. Sure, he may be delusional in his place in the world, but being worshipped and idolized has made him believe that wearing a devil-faced codpiece is normal behavior for someone considered a “rock god.” Cruise is able to hold his own when it comes to the musical portion of Stacee Jaxx, looking right at home on the stage, performing “Wanted Dead Or Alive” in front of thousands or “I Want To Know What Love Is” for a private audience of one.
When ROCK OF AGES focuses on Jaxx, there’s purpose to the film beyond wondering how they can get into the next song. The usual intensity Cruise brings to every role is certainly here, but this isn’t your typical Cruise part, and watching him play against type is where the challenge is. If it doesn’t click, it becomes the distraction of constantly noticing that’s Tom Cruise… but he makes the shift work for him that you can appreciate him trying something different, outside of his comfort zone, and making it the best part of the movie.
Before you write off ROCK OF AGES though, play back some of the music the movie features for yourself. If you find yourself getting nostalgic for some of those 80s classics, you might want to give it a shot, because that’s what the film is – a trip down memory lane with music you used to really like and can still take pleasure in hearing when it crosses your path. It’s not a quality musical, and it’s not even a good film, but it is a good time, and it’s hard to complain about that.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.