Most of the songs featured in “Rock of Ages” made me change the channel whenever their music videos popped up on MTV.
“Rock of Ages” is a jukebox musical built around songs from 1980s heavy metal hair bands, with some Pat Benatar and Journey thrown in to make you scratch your head. While I would be more attuned to a musical featuring the works of Blondie, Devo, ABC and other new wave acts, I usually accept any invitation to wallow in ’80s trivia, even if that means listening to Twisted Sister’s greatest hits (both of them) again.
No, the songs aren’t the problem with “Rock of Ages.” Nearly everything else is.
Based on the Broadway hit, “Rock of Ages” tells the tale of young lovers Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta). She is a small-town girl who alights on the Sunset Strip, fresh off the bus from Oklahoma. He is a good-hearted boy tending bar at the Strip’s most raucous club, the Bourbon Room. Both dream of being rock stars. The year is 1987.
Meanwhile, everyone else at the Bourbon Room is gearing up for the arrival of rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who will perform the final concert with his band at the club that launched their career. Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) hopes Stacee’s return will pull the club out of its financial woes.
Over at city hall, the mayor’s wife, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), launches a campaign against indecent rock music, particularly targeting the Bourbon Room and Stacee Jaxx.
Zeta-Jones’ character, invented for the movie, parodies Tipper Gore, who led such a campaign in the ’80s, although most of her salvos were directed against sexy Prince lyrics.
Shoehorning a character like this into a rock musical doesn’t quite work. Would a straitlaced anti-rock crusader rouse her followers by belting out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” complete with pelvic thrusts? Shouldn’t she sing something by, say, Sheena Easton? (Although, come to think of it, Tipper Gore went after Sheena, too.)
“Rock of Ages” has been assembled by director Adam Shankman, and it is a massive comedown from his previous retro musical, “Hairspray.” The confidence he displayed in “Hairspray,” which I honestly believe is the best American musical movie since MGM’s heyday, has vanished. The musical numbers are edited to reflect music videos of the era, which makes sense, but in the middle of the songs Shankman often cuts away to other people in other locales, a symptom of a script with too many characters and too many stories to tell.
Plus, many of the numbers are staged in cramped locations, including the aisles of a recreated Tower Records on Sunset, so the performers have no room to maneuver. The dancing is negligible, which is a further disappointment from a filmmaker who started as a choreographer.
Shankman also bungles the tone. The campy approach that I presume made the stage show a hit (not having seen it), doesn’t translate to the screen. Prepackaged camp seldom works in film. Dumb, throwaway jokes fall flat, and exposition-filled outbursts are embarrassing to hear. When Cruise’s character is first named, someone exclaims, “Stacee Jaxx – the most unreliable man in the music industry?”
Baldwin gets stuck with most of this terrible dialogue. Worse, he shares most of his scenes with Russell Brand as a club flunky who is supposed to be comic relief. “Relief” is not a word that leaps to mind when Brand appears, not after “Arthur.”
Cruise is far away the best thing in “Rock of Ages,” which is entertaining whenever he is on screen. Unfortunately, that isn’t often enough. When Cruise commits to a character, he commits. Stacee Jaxx is the ultimate bad boy rock god, an extremely debauched version of Axl Rose who has a leather clad monkey as a sidekick and sways as if only he can feel the tectonic plates shifting beneath his feet.
Cruise also bangs out credible versions of “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” If “Rock of Ages” has a musical highlight, it’s Cruise’s duet with Malin Akerman, who plays a Rolling Stone reporter, on “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which is as naughty as the PG-13 rating allows.
Zeta-Jones’ character would approve of how the film tones downs the play’s sexuality so that Stacee is less despicable and Sherrie is more chaste. The script is credited to Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb and Chris D’Arienzo, who wrote the play’s book.
Shankman’s greatest mistake is that he takes the romance between Sherrie and Drew seriously and puts them at the film’s center instead of sending them into orbit around the crazy supporting characters. Starting with the wide-eyed Midwestern innocent arriving in Hollywood to become a star, their tale is intentionally filled with clichés and was meant to be parodied. But all we get from Hough and Boneta are earnestness and awful singing.
When making a musical, it generally is a good idea to hire a leading lady who can sing. Hough’s kewpie doll voice is beyond the help of Auto-Tune. Too thin and too high-pitched for rock, Hough’s voice simply destroys “Sister Christian,” “More Than Words,” “Shadows of the Night” and others.
Hough came to fame as a regular on “Dancing With the Stars” and starred in last fall’s “Footloose” remake, but she hardly dances in “Rock of Ages.” When she does, it’s during a brief and unsatisfying number after her character takes a job at a strip club owned by Mary J. Blige. Sixty percent of American movies are required to feature strip clubs, and “Rock of Ages” does its part to fill that quota.
Boneta may botch “Juke Box Hero,” but he is a better singer than Hough. However, he has no screen presence. “Rock of Ages” is a loud, expensive musical straining to cut loose in raunch and comedy, but it gets caught in a holding pattern circling a couple of drips. “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” Hough and Boneta sing, unaware that they are this movie’s thorn.