Even those of us who enjoy movie musicals concede there’s a certain degree of eye-rolling that comes with the territory. Some of the greatest musicals of all time — from classics like Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story to more modern hits like Chicago — are not immune to audible groans from jaded audiences whenever dialogue is interrupted by a showtune or a preposterously choreographed dance sequence. No one is going to confuse Rock of Ages with one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, but the best thing about director Adam Shankman’s bloated, star-packed film is that it has a pretty good idea of how cheesy and phony it is.
The film is based on the successful Broadway musical of the same name and follows a small town girl (Julianne Hough) and a city boy (Diego Boneta) as they pursue their dreams of music superstardom in 1987 Hollywood. A lot of the action takes place in The Bourbon Room, a popular bar/club owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), that is the object of scorn for Mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and, particularly, his morally
uptight upright wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a role invented for the movie). Of course, the story is just an excuse to feature as many classic rock hits from the 1980s as possible. I counted almost 25 songs — including the ones that were mashed up into single performances — which means that any tune from this time period that wasn’t included in the film should be seriously offended.
But you’re probably here because you want to know if Tom Cruise can sing. Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, an combination of several flamboyant 1980s frontmen, with a heavy emphasis on Bret Michaels (and his ever-present cowboy hat) and Axl Rose (with his penchant for showing up extravagantly late, if at all, to gigs). I figured Cruise would attack the role with the same intensity he brings to his action hero work and to jumping on couches, and the actor mostly delivers. His singing voice is an adequate, slightly nasally instrument that is carried by the movie star charisma he brings to Stacee’s credible stage performances. Cruise, along with Malin Akerman as Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack, is also responsible for one of the movie’s standout musical moments, an uproariously lewd interpretation of Foreigner’s power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is.” On the other hand, I thought Cruise’s drug-induced haze during Stacee’s off-stage scenes was more of an interesting acting exercise — you’ve never seen Cruise this catatonic, except maybe in Eyes Wide Shut — than a genuine transformation. (Like his ferocious work in Tropic Thunder.) Also, a monkey steals a handful of his scenes.
Shankman also directed the lively adaptation of Broadway hit Hairspray, and both films share a lot of the same glossy “down with the establishment” DNA. (Sorry, but it’s almost impossible make a genuinely scrappy underdog tale when your film features some of the world’s most famous movie stars.) In Hairspray, I was pleasantly surprised by the strong performances of the young cast, and a little underwhelmed by the work of the more established actors. In Rock of Ages, the opposite is mostly true. Though Diego Boneta makes a decent big-screen debut as nice guy Drew (showing off a good voice and nice comedic chops when Drew’s music career takes an embarrassing turn), I was thoroughly unimpressed by Julianne Hough as small town girl Sherrie Christian (cue Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”). The lovely Hough looks the part of a female lead in a movie, but in Rock of Ages she’s a charisma vacuum whose thin, reedy voice is ill-suited to almost every song she’s asked to sing.
Fortunately, the movie doesn’t hinge on Drew and Sherrie’s love story because there’s plenty more going on. In the same way Shankman tapped Michelle Pfeiffer for a villainous role in Hairspray, Zeta-Jones (another stunning actress who doesn’t appear in nearly as many movies as she should) impressively returns to the song-and-dance routine that won her an Oscar in Chicago. (Her standout moment is a ridiculously aggressive take on Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”) Baldwin (looking like the polar opposite of 30 Rock alter-ego Jack Donaghy) and Russell Brand (who is much better in small doses) make for a surprisingly terrific comedic pairing. (Wait until you see their duet of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”) Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti (and his oversize cell phone) is deliciously oily as Stacee’s unscrupulous manager.
Ultimately, there are too many things going on and the movie unnecessarily swells to 123 minutes. For example, R&B star Mary J. Blige (as gentlemen’s club owner Justice Charlier) doesn’t have much of a purpose other than to be the one person in this musical who is actually a great singer. Cranston gets a kinky subplot because somebody seemed to realize they’d hired (arguably) the best actor on television, but had given him nothing to do. Also, I definitely could’ve done without yet another “Don’t Stop Believin'” singalong. (What is this? Glee?)
Then again, this sort of ridiculous excess falls in line with the film’s story and setting (portrayed by production designer Jon Huntman’s faux-grimy sets). The movie also cleverly plays with movie musical conventions — Drew claims he suffers from stage fright…right after completing a rollicking performance in a crowded record store — and with its ultra-popular song catalog. (Sherri says to Drew, “I can’t believe you wrote that” after he plays the opening lines of “Don’t Stop Believin'” for her.)
The movie’s soundtrack and overly polished musical numbers will only gently rock you, but you have to remember the film is based on a crowd-pleasing Broadway musical. (If you were looking for a gritty take on 1980s rock music, Tom Cruise’s name on the poster should’ve been a major sign that you came to the wrong place.) A big part of the fun comes from watching the cast effectively play against type (and play dress up), and that fun extends to the audience…assuming you’re actually watching what’s happening on screen and not too busy rolling your eyes.