Rock of Ages
Director : Adam Shankman
Screenplay : Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb (based on the musical book by Chris D’Arienzo)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Julianne Hough (Sherrie Christian), Diego Boneta (Drew Boley), Paul Giamatti (Paul Gill), Russell Brand (Lonny), Mary J. Blige (Justice), Angelo Donato Valderrama (Chico), Malin Akerman (Constance Sack), Bryan Cranston (Mike Whitmore), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Patricia Whitmore), Alec Baldwin (Dennis Dupree), Tom Cruise (Stacee Jaxx)
Rock of Ages, Adam Shankman’s film version of the 2006 jukebox musical, is a decidedly uneven celebration of Los Angeles’s glam metal heyday in the late 1980s. Built around more than two-dozen hard-rock hits from the late 1970s and ’80s that have been repurposed to varying degrees in order to fit into a tried-and-true rise-and-fall narrative set against the backdrop of L.A.’s Sunset Strip, Rock of Ages is certainly brimming with guilty pleasures for those who are nostalgic for big hair and big power chords, but like many musicals of its ilk, the story that binds the songs together is decidedly lacking.
We first meet the film’s heroine, a sweet-faced Midwestern girl named Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough, who played Ariel in the recent Footloose remake) as she travels by bus from the great plains of Oklahoma to the seedy streets of downtown L.A. where she hopes to make it as a singer. Instead, she has her suitcase carrying her precious record albums stolen almost as soon as her feet touch asphalt, an event that is witnessed by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta, who has appeared on several teen TV series like Pretty Little Liars and 90210). Drew is an aspiring rocker who works as a busboy at The Bourbon, a club on the Sunset Strip (and obvious stand-in for the real-life Whiskey-a-Go-Go, which helped launch Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Mötley Crüe). Their meet cute develops into full-blown romance on the hill behind the Hollywood sign, and because it happens so early in the story, it’s not hard to surmise that heartbreak is lurking somewhere nearby.
Sherrie and Drew’s romance merges with several intertwined secondary plots, including the struggles of the Bourbon’s owner Dennis Dupree (Alex Baldwin) and his partner Lonny (Russell Brand) to keep the club open against both difficult economic times and constant pressure from Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the straight-laced wife of L.A. mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), a supposed reformed head-banger who likes to engage in some naughty business on the side with his assistant. Zeta-Jones’s character is the requisite Tipper Gore stand-in, leading a parade of similarly suited conservative women against the social ills and corrupting influences of glam metal’s “nothin’ but a good time” ethos, although the film makes it clear that they are not so much morally as politically motivated. In Rock of Ages, everything is corrupt except the pure heart of rock’n’roll.
The success or failure of the Bourbon rides largely on the shoulders of Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), the industry’s reigning rock god who has recently decided to break away from his successful band Arsenal and forge a solo career on the advice of his smarmy manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti). Although he is still king of the hill, Jaxx is a burn-out, a man who has so thoroughly indulged in the perilous thrills of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll for so long that all he can do now is drift along in his own cloud of inebriated bravado, which is so thoroughly ingrained that he moves in slow motion and rarely brings his voice above a whisper. Unlikely as the casting may seem on paper, Cruise is far and away the best thing in the film; clearly channeling Axl Rose at his most gratuitously self-indulgent, Cruise is darkly comical in conveying Jaxx’s wastrel insouciance (especially when being interviewed by a leggy Rolling Stone reporter played by Malin Akerman) while also suggesting that the aging rocker actually has a soul, however shredded and burned out it might be (his eventual redemption marks a significant departure from the stage musical). Cruise also proves, against expectations, to have an impressive set of pipes, and when he rips into Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” he nails the snaky essence of rock superstardom at its most gloriously hedonistic.
Unfortunately, Cruise’s memorable performance has a decidedly negative impact on many of the performers around him, particularly new faces Julianne Hough and Diego Boneto, both of whom are pretty, talented, and terribly dull. It’s not necessarily their fault; as written, Sherrie and Drew are characters so generic, one-dimensional, and uninspiring that no performer could have elevated them beyond the narrative clichés in which they’re mired. Like Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), they’re the resident squares, although the filmmakers don’t seem to recognize that and treat them as such. Instead, we’re asked to actually care whether they wind up together.
Some of the more seasoned performers fare better in flashy supporting roles. Zeta-Jones throws herself into Patricia Whitmore’s rigid righteousness, although her signature musical moment, a snappy performance of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” makes absolutely no narrative sense. Giamatti is reliable as always as the shady record producer who is more than happy to sell out and screw over anyone for a buck, including Drew, who he turns into a boy-band cheeseball in the film’s third act (it is telling that the film doesn’t recognize that Drew’s adoption of glam-metal devil-horn posturing is only one degree removed from the syncopated airiness of the bubble-gum pop that supposedly represents his having sold out). Meanwhile, Baldwin and Brand generate a nice odd-couple chemistry that develops into something more, culminating in a hilarious and oddly touching rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
Part of the problem with Rock of Ages is that Shankman (Hairspray) and screenwriters Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder), Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the book for the stage musical), and Allan Loeb (Just Go With It) try to play it too straight while also softening too many of the stage version’s rougher edges. When they leaven the story with bits of self-conscious cheesiness, the film really works as a simultaneously nostalgic and parodic look back at the bright, shining moment when hair metal ruled the airwaves and threatened to become a genuine cultural force. The scattered bits of social commentary regarding the vicious nature of show business and the potentially soul-sucking void that is fame are too hit-and-miss to leave much of an impact, which gives us little to hold onto. For most of the audience, it’s just a matter of slogging through the narrative connections to get to the next rock anthem and see whether it’s been elevated or simply appropriated.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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