Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston
Allan Loeb, Chris D'Arienzo, Justin Theroux, Michael Arndt
Warner Brothers Pictures
Note: If you build it, they will rock it: a look at the historical significance of the real Sunset Strip clubs in the '80s and how they shaped the design of the "Bourbon Room" in the movie Any way you want it music featurette: featuring Mary J. Blige, Constantine Maroulis and Julianne Hough Def Leppard: live at the premiere Dual Layer
How do you feel about musicals?
How do you feel about music from the late 80's?
If the answer to both of these questions is "rock on," then the rock musical Rock of Ages is definitely a film for you. There isn't an original vibe to be found in Rock of Ages, a cinematic adaptation of an off-Broadway hit that weaves together a paper thin story and an abundance of late 80's music that would likely make you cringe except for the fact that everyone in this cast, and this is quite the cast, is clearly having a blast and giving their all to this over-the-top material.
The film kicks off in 1987 with wholesome Oklahoma girl Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) taking the Greyhound bus to the big city of Los Angeles in search of fame.
If you can't read the previous statement and already guess that there's a rousing version of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" to be had, then you're likely not a true fan of late 80's music. Within moments of her arrival in L.A., our sister Christian is accosted by a street thug who removes from her possession her prized musical collection. She's quickly rescued by the consummate good guy, Drew (Diego Boneta), who also just so happens to work at the legendary Bourbon Club, a dive L.A. rock joint run by owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his trusty sidekick (Russell Brand).
The film's predictable story arc has, of course, Drew getting Sherrie a job at the Bourbon room followed by Drew getting Sherrie. The Bourbon Club itself is in tax trouble and dealing with a mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his activist wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who are determined to shut the joint down. Even worse, the only thing that may save the club is the promised appearance by notoriously flaky rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), lead singer of the band Arsenal, who is supposed to perform his last concert with the band at the Bourbon Club before he goes solo. That is, if his manager (Paul Giamatti) can get him to actually show up.
There's probably a dozen different tunes performed by our incredibly able cast in just the 3-4 paragraphs of plot exposition offered up here, and Rock of Ages is wall-to-wall late 80's music ranging from hair bands like Whitesnake and Twisted Sister to middle of the road rockers like REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Starship, Journey and a host of others. In a way, this is good since Rock of Ages deflates rather badly during any scene dependent on actual dialogue. The film's central storyline, the relationship between Sherrie and Drew, is easily the least interesting thing about Rock of Ages, partially because the story is so skeletal that it doesn't really convince and, quite honestly, partly because Boneta and Hough are outshone by their larger than life co-stars.
The good news, as noted early on, is that director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) has assembled quite the cast and they're clearly having quite the blast here. As silly and predictable and campy as Rock of Ages is, it's also quite a bit of fun. It's hard not to enjoy Tom Cruise, who seems to recognize that this is the best role he's had in years and it may be the one that actually endears him once again to the American public. Cruise is a surprisingly solid singer and finds himself involved in no less than eight tunes in the film including stand-outs like Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" and Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Even better, Cruise finds the most intriguing places to take Stacee Jaxx and infuses in him bits and pieces of rock stars from the past whom you will no doubt think of as Cruise lights up the screen. It's really a shame that Rock of Ages doesn't focus on Stacee Jaxx, because Jaxx is easily the film's most interesting and developed character.
Pretty much everyone here, however, seems in on the Rock of Ages vibe. You may very well end up hating the film, but it's hard not to admire Shankman's ability to pull of a consistently campy, entertaining, over-the-top and joyfully irreverent film that works a good majority of the time. While it might seem that Baldwin and Brand could be a bit of a mismatch, they end up being disarmingly charming, hilarious and a wealth of faux sincerity.
Paul Giamatti does a fine job as Stacee's oily manager, though he isn't given much complexity to work with. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a hoot as the sort of stereo-typed righteous right-winger that you always find in this "rock n' roll vs. the world" kind of film. Mary J. Blige is terrific as well, though she's here to mostly sing. Boy, can she sing.
There's an appealing earnestness possessed by both Sherrie and Drew, and kudos to both Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta for largely holding their own against major Hollywood vets who are lucky enough to be playing more outlandish characters. In essence, both Sherrie and Drew are the "straight men" of the film, attempting to infuse life into a not particularly interesting love story. Hough isn't exactly a bad singer, though her voice has a nasal quality about it that almost inevitably pales in comparison to those with whom she shares duets except for the well matched Diego Boneta. Boneta possesses almost what one could consider more of a 70's look, with a voice that is closer to David Cassidy than it is 80's hair band. That said, even Boneta manages to shine more as a singer than an actor.
Rock of Ages isn't likely to find itself named on anyone's Top 10 lists for 2012, but for those with a love of nostalgia and a willingness to surrender to the campy nature of it all this is a film that serves up well played cover tunes and an abundance of entertainment of the light, campy variety. The price of admission is almost worth it simply to see Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, but this is one film that will likely have an incredibly long home video shelf life long after its run at the box-office has ended.
If you find yourself choosing this opening weekend between this and the latest Adam Sandler comedy, there's simply no doubt that from beginning to end this is one film that will keep your toes tapping and a smile on your face.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic