Rock of Ages (2012)
written by: Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb
produced by: Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Weaver, Scott Prisand, Carl Levin & Garrett Grant
directed by: Adam Shankman
rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language)
runtime: 123 min.
U.S. release date: June 15, 2012
Were big hair metal bands still riding high in 1987? I can’t recall. Partly because I hardly paid them much attention back then and also – I’m not 17 anymore, so it’s hard to recount such details. Granted, I may not have purchased such music at the time, but I knew of it and for the most part, I liked it. The music, that is – not the musicians. Skinny white dudes in tight leather pants and make-up (who often looked hotter than their female fan base) didn’t do anything for me, nor did their female counterparts (well, outside of Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, I wouldn’t consider those two “metal” though). But I did get a kick out of seeing Tom Cruise dress-up like a rock star, in director/producer Adan Shankman’s (“Hairspray”) jukebox musical “Rock of Ages”, based on the hit Broadway production which has been around since 2006. Whipping his long hair about while sauntering around onstage with his crotch adornments, the movie star is unfortunately the only real draw, in a movie that is more silly and stupid than it is funny and fun.
As mentioned, the movie takes place in 1987, where we meet a Sherrie Christian (Julianna Hough, from last year’s pretty decent “Footloose” remake) on a bus bound for Hollywood. The young Oklahoma girl breaks into song, singing “Sister Christian”(get it?), adding “Just Like Paradise” as a mashup, while select passengers chime in. This is what to expect for the next two hours (one song too long), so if this is your thing and you can get on board with the music, then by all means, sing along. (The audience I was with broke out into laughter several times during this opening number – it wasn’t necessarily because it was funny, either). Despite the oddity of it all, this scene actually worked, even though it showcases such an overplayed Night Ranger tune. It’s a precursor, a calm before the storm of many other cheesy overplayed tunes.
Sherrie arrives in Los Angeles, on the corner of Wide-Eyed and Naive, where she gets her suitcase full of head-banging records (cuz who needs clothes?) stolen on the Sunset Strip. To her rescue comes Drew Boley (newcomer Diego Boneta, “Pretty Little Liars”), a bar back at The Bourbon Room, the popular nightclub across the street (or, um, soundstage) run by gruff promoter, Dennis Dupree (a hilariously wigged-out, Alec Baldwin). As reluctant as Dennis is to hire “yet another singer”, he concedes and hires Sherrie when another waitress quits the beer-soaked excessive hotspot. He’s more concerned with making sure he and his MC sidekick, Lonny (Russell Brand, one of the few actors who look at home) get the place ready for a major gig – the final performance of hard rock band Arsenal!
Lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise, doing for rock stars what Mickey Rourke did for wrestlers) is calling it quits as he embarks on a solo career. This last concert, put on by the difficult rock star’s oily manager, Paul Dill (Paul Giamatti, who plays cartoonish scumbag better?) will draw a huge crowd and help get The Bourbon out of the red. But the media frenzy surrounding the event is also drawing something else, scrutiny from Patricia Whitemore (Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing it large and channeling Tipper Gore), the wife of cuckold Los Angeles Mayor (a wasted Bryan Cranston, who didn’t even get to sing!), who launches an attack on Jaxx and his immoral influence, for her own secret reasons. Ironically, all we see the Mayor do is play patty-cake with his secretary.
Backstage at the Bourbon, Jaxx is hiding out with his booze-pushing baboon (named Hey Man), until they are interrupted by Rolling Stone reporter, eager to get an exclusive interview. Her name is Constance Sacks (Malin Ackerman, looking like Sharon Stone circa “Total Recall”), who does for journalism what Kate Bosworth did for Lois Lane in “Superman Returns” – wait stop, read that name again – now figure out for yourself what happens between Jaxx and Sacks behind closed doors, as she goes from mousey to sex kitten. Hey, how about that PG-13 rating, eh?
All this is happening while Sherrie and Drew are serenading each other down the street at Tower Records (oh, how we miss thee), which carries over to the “Hollywood” sign (a frequented “Inspiration Point” of the movies), and gives us a chance to hear more nauseating mashups, such as “Jukebox Hero/I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Drew is so smitten by Sherrie that he sets out to write a song for her, it goes something like “Just a small town girl/Livin’ in a lonely world” and on and on and on….(groan) you get the idea. Due to a Three’s Company-esque misunderstanding on Drew’s part, Sherrie quits The Bourbon and is “forced” to get a gig as a stripper at The Venus Club, run by the benevolent Justice Charlier (Mary J. Blige, playing a glorified madam). Even though her only qualifications are waiting on tables, this was the only place she could find a job in L.A.
I’ll stop there, since it’s pointless to try to explain the threadbare plot to “Rock of Ages”, even though (as you can see) I tried. Mainly, because there’s nothing there to figure out here. Between all the musical montage mashups, groan-worthy are uttered (mainly by the two Hough and Boneta, who are there for their pipes, not their chops) and stereotypical characters are repackaged and sold at clearance price. It’s baffling how it took three screenwriters, including actor/writer Justin Theroux (“Iron Man 2”), to hand in a script for a movie adapting an existing musical.
But really, what everyone probably wants to know is – What about the cast? Well, I first wondered how much of a challenge it would be to buy recognizable actors playing these characters. I mean, right away (even in the trailers) Baldwin looks like Jack Donaghy at a Halloween party, with Brand in his shag wig as his date. Those two have some of the best back and forth and, ironically, their bromance results in an awkwardly forced and hilarious duet of “I Can’t Fight this Feeling”. Everyone clearly signed up for the fun of it, including Zeta-Jones playing The Antagonist, and it’s obviously not hard to do with such broad and satirical roles.
As far as random roles, I enjoyed comic T.J. Miller (“She’s Out of My League”) as a Rolling Stone editor, perhaps channeling Jann Wenner. In a movie that has blink-and-you-miss-them appearances by the likes of Will Forte, Eli Roth, and Nuno Bettencourt, there has to be some bit parts that manage to rise above the rest.
But only Cruise comes away with a mesmerizing performance that transcends absurdity. Think what you will of Cruise, but he really does lose himself in a role that’s more trippy than kitschy. The guy can sing too, notably “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (with Hough) and “I Want to Know What Love is” (with Ackerman), and to see him literally throw himself in to “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, ridiculous as that song is, it was a lot of fun to see the 49 year-old actor get into it. More than just “acting” like a rock star, Cruise convincingly gets into the physicality of the role, spending most of the movie with his shirt off and mastering a slouch-to-the-side walk where he leads with his manhood. His expressions vacillate between vacant and ponderous, conveying the mentality of a washed-up singer, while his voice is honed to an almost incoherent whisper that had me trying to glean every word. The more screen time Cruise had, the more I found myself wishing everyone else would fade away. In fact, I would’ve preferred to see Cruise as Jaxx in a more serious film that focused on the decadence of the era and the incoming emergence of prepackaged boy bands. In a movie that is exhaustingly predictable at every turn, Cruise presents the only real surprise and entertainment.
For fans of the Broadway musical or Fox’s Glee, seeing this may be a no-brainer. There’s a certain curiosity about it all. Those Twisted Sister and Scorpions fans out there may struggle with having “their music” paired with the likes of Foreigner and REO Speedwagon, but then again this is a movie with cameos by Debbie (sorry, Deborah) Gibson and Sebastian Bach, so it’s kind of pointless to get too enraged.
“Rock of Ages” is chock full of unintentional laugh-out-loud moments that are more “Make it Stop” outbursts than they are genuinely earned audience satisfaction. In the end, I wanted to slice my ears off if I had to be subjected to “We Built This City” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” in yet another movie. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the crowd-surfing abandon of Cruise’s work in an otherwise forgettable film.