Adam Shankman’s “Rock of Ages,” based on the Broadway musical written by Chris D’Areinzo, takes us back to Los Angeles in 1987. Although it may as well be a dream world. Dreamt up by aging rock nerds listening to their vintage record collection in their basement.
The Los Angeles featured in “Rock of Ages” is sparkling and glamorous, everyone looks fabulous, even the bums and the crums. It’s a place where Tower Records exists. A place of big hair and big dreams and every night feels like one big party. The main location in the picture is a nightclub called the Bourbon, where women don’t have to pay for drinks, and various musicians--famous and up and coming-- perform.
“Rock of Ages” is a musical celebration of the rock and roll culture of the eighties. And looking at it from a modern perspective, it’s part satire. The musical numbers are songs from the likes of Poison, Bon Jovi, Journey, Foreigner, Joan Jett, Def Leopard, REO Speedwagon and many more. The movie runs on 100 percent nostalgia, appreciation (and also condemnation in the form of a group of Christian moms protesting the club and calling rock the devil’s music) for that genre of music.
The Bourbon owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his loyal employee Lonny (Russell Brandt) represent the rock geeks in all of us. They aren’t famous or particularly well known; they just love the music with all of their soul. When the aging rock star Stacey Jaxx (Tom Cruise) comes to the Bourbon with his band Arsenic for their last performance, we see them cheering amidst the massive rowdy crowd. They are fans. With Brandt’s sassiness and Baldwin’s cool giddiness they are the most sincere and amusing characters in the movie. Their duet of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight this Feeling Anymore” is among the highlights of the film.
And then there’s Cruise, as Jaxx. Oh boy is he a sight to behold. After seeing this and other Cruise performances I’ve come to learn that Cruise does his best work when he plays either cocky and arrogant characters or jokey types like in this or Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder.” He feels the most alive and looks like he’s having the most fun. The first glimpse we get of him is a close up of his cod piece with a devil head on it, followed by seeing his abdomen lined with tattoos and from there on out he’s ridiculous. Sporting a cowboy hat and a fur coat, speaking in a hushed tone and strutting around in a daze, Cruise rocks every scene he’s in. His performance of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” gave me chills.
As for the rest of the movie, there are soaring hits and soaring misses. On the one hand the movie can be exhilarating and bursting with energy. The narrative (focusing on various people involved with rock) is thin, so to make up for it Shankeman stages elaborate, over the top musical numbers. (Some good, some not so much). The picture doesn’t go on for five minutes before the Bourbon breaks out in a rendition of “Nothing but a Good Time” by Poison. A group of lady strippers at a gentleman’s club break out into a song and dance number of “Any Way You Want It” by Journey. And Shankeman—who directed the remake of “Hairspray”—handles these massive sequences rather well, though it can be chaotic at times, especially when there are overlapping music numbers.
But then there are those misses. The main one being the central love story between the young aspiring musicians Drew (Diego Boley) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough). Hough gives it her peppy and charming all (and Boley…well lets just say he’s lucky he has a good voice) but unfortunately they were the falsest notes in the whole movie. Their story was the most cliché, and their performances seemed better fit for the Disney Channel. They’re pop stars singing rock and roll.
The other major issue is in the character of Patricia (Catherine Zeta Jones) as the mayor’s wife, who’s working with the Christian moms to close down the Bourbon. Again, Zeta Jones does the best she can with what little she has but her character and subplot isn’t established enough. Conservative people protesting rock and roll is just as important to the culture as the music is but in the movie it feels like a superfluous afterthought.
In the end “Rock of Ages” will probably appeal immensely to some and annoy others. If you don’t like rock music or that culture then stay far away. The movie is long, and towards the end it does drag a bit. The vocal work is surprisingly good considering actors like Cruise sang, but really, why would you want to buy these versions as opposed to the original songs?
The film is simply commemorating that wild rebellious spirit of a time long gone, and there’s something to be said for that.