Being a child of the ’80s and a pre-adolescent product of rock n’ roll’s most fashion-concerned era (you would, in no way, find pictures of me at age six with self-slit blue jeans) Rock of Ages should have been a warm-hearted nostalgia trip for me to a time where bad boys wore girl’s aerobic outfits underneath leather jackets with sapphires and rhinestones, girls had poodle ‘fros and chewed lots of bubble gum, and we both bonded over our love for all songs that just said rock a lot; and the more often the word was repeated in the song the more it was good.
Having been adapted from a popular stage production, and helmed by a director who did a splendid job with Hairspray, I expected a tongue-in-cheek romp that would have me struggling to refrain from jumping out of my seat and throwing my fists in the air chanting that I wasn’t gonna take it. After about ten minutes I really was struggling to refrain from jumping out of my seat and throwing my fists, because I really wanted to stop taking it.
After that first ten minutes, if the film hasn’t grabbed you, then chances are it’s not gonna take hold, because it doesn’t get a whole lot better. By that point we establish that Julianne Hough is Sherrie (a small-town girl), Diego Boneta is Drew (born and raised in South Detroit), and that they both should probably not sing songs together if their first encounter on the LA strip upon Sherrie’s arrival off the bus from Oklahoma is any indication of their capabilities to carry the movie. Only it is, and they do. They sing a lot. And everyone else does, too.
In that first instance Sherrie gets her
livelihood records stolen almost immediately on arrival and Drew successfully runs up to save her from having to lug that heavy bag around everywhere by not attempting to run after the thief, who was already a whole five yards away. He was possibly on his way into a better movie.
Drew is an aspiring rocker along with Sherrie, and he helps her land a job at The Bourbon where he bartends. The Bourbon is a rock ‘n roll bar owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), who struggles with the impending bankruptcy of his property and is pressured daily by a group of picketing female evangelicals (led by the mayor’s wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) to shut down and take their sanctuary of sex, and hateful music…and SEX! and go back to the hell they all came from. Dupree’s only hope to keep the legendary bar open is to allow a once-in-a-lifetime concert for the notoriously unreliable Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), which would serve as a going-out party for his band before Jaxx pursues a solo career.
That’s the set-up to allow for a two-hour treadmill run of nearly non-stop bad renditions of “good” (or, at least popular) 1980’s hair band classics. Onstage, this likely works well, especially if you enjoy the music. Rock of Ages is a musical written for the stage, and stage performers can sing and entertain with their singing, not at the cost of it. I’m not distracted by a stage actor’s celebrity. I am distracted by Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin. I applaud them for singing their own songs. I applaud the whole cast for that, in fact. However, if there isn’t enough there (and there isn’t) for the actors to bring to the table at what they actually do well – which is to entertain with their ability to act in a comedy – then please, for the love of Milli Vanilli, dub them over. The movie has a total of about twenty-six songs that get covered in two hours. Even Mamma Mia! had the sense to give it a bit of a break.
Of the cast, only Russell Brand as Dennis Dupree’s second-in-command and Paul Giamatti as Stacee Jaxx’s conniving manager fit the shoes of their roles. When Brand performs his small number of songs, he does so with the humor that he’s good at (and truthfully, Russell Brand just sort of belongs in movies like this). Giamatti doesn’t really sing at all and is therefore always doing what he’s good at when he’s on screen. Everyone else fails to connect. The two young leads show almost zero chemistry and precisely zero camera charisma. I never thought I’d miss Zac Efron. Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx is a performance made well for a humorous cameo and would work as a figure that would be alluded to and rarely shown directly, but he’s front and center way too often and Tom Cruise being crazy and self-deprecating is no longer an appealing draw, especially if he seems to be playing it serious.
For a musical inspired by anthem-like rock ‘n roll songs, Rock of Ages is disappointingly non-rousing. It fails to capture a reverence for the era, and if you’re looking for that, I’d suggest the solid Mark Wahlberg-starring Rock Star from 2001, a film that has an awareness and cleverness that far exceeds the obvious jokes found in Rock of Ages. If it’s a desire to reignite your love for rock ‘n roll’s most pop-like decade, then your ten dollars would be better spent at a jukebox of the nearest bar. Or, just continue to sing in the shower. It’s more satisfying and less humiliating.
The Upside: Russell Brand generates a couple of genuine laughs
The Downside: Terrible covers of questionable “classics,” nary a single decently written joke, paper-thin characters, no chemistry between the leads, too much monkey, and Mary J. Blige claiming that the only place to get respect in an establishment is on the stripper stage. I kinda side with the evangelical extremists in the movie on that one.
On the Side: Director Adam Shankman did not want an older actor to play Drew and portray someone who was 23. When describing lead actor Diego Boneta Shankman declared, “he’s authentically the age. It creates a piece of something on screen that I don’t have to fabricate.”
Thank you, Adam Shankman, for choosing to make that the thing you did not fabricate.