Drew Boley: Diego Boneta
Stacee Jaxx: Tom Cruise
Dennis Dupree: Alec Baldwin
Lonny: Russell Brand
Patricia Whitmore: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Paul Gill: Paul Giamatti
Constance Sack: Malin Akerman
Mike Whitmore: Bryan Cranston
Justice Charlier: Mary J. Blige
New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Adam Shankman. Written by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb. Musical book by Chris D’Arienzo. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, suggestive dancing, heavy drinking, and language).
After the final preview trailer, the audience in our small town’s modestly attended opening night screening of the new rock musical “Rock of Ages” hushed with anticipation. The company logos flashed with a score that sounded reminiscent of the rock music of the 1980s and the images started moving, showing us a girl on a bus wearing headphones. She begins to sing the Night Ranger song “Sister Christian”. The audience shifts in their seats, not sure what to think of this girl bursting into song with no introduction to character or location. Then the bus driver adds a couple of lines to the lyrics and the chuckles begin. Then the entire bus passenger population joins in and the chuckles increase.
Modern movie audiences still aren’t used to the conventions of the movie musical despite the fact that Hollywood has resumed the practice of making musicals at the rate of about one major musical per year for the past decade. The musical “Rock of Ages” never apologizes for what it is. It’s goofy and cheesy and drenched in the hair metal-based pop culture of the mid 80s, during which its events take place. I’m not entirely sure the movie really knows what it is itself for the first half hour of its running time. After about the thirty-minute mark, I had finally decided that it is intended to be a full on comedy about 80s music and the attitudes encapsulated within the iconic songs of the era. Sometimes it even works.
The story follows Sherrie (Julianne Hough, “Footloose”), the girl on the bus who has left her small Midwest town to pursue a career as a singer in L.A. in 1987. She meets another aspiring singer, Drew (Diego Boneta, “Pretty Little Liars”), who works at the Bourbon, a CBGB’s type of club responsible for launching the career of one of L.A.’s biggest rock stars, Stacee Jaxx. Tom Cruise plays Jaxx as if he’s finally embraced all the crazy that people suspect of him in real life.
Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) plays the club’s owner, Dennis Dupree, who struggles with the lameness of running a business and having to deal with things like taxes, while trying to live the freedom inspired life offered by rock. Baldwin and Russell Brand threaten to steal everything with their show-stopping duet of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Stop This Feeling”, in which Dennis finally realizes his romantic feelings for Brand’s character, Lonny.
Meanwhile, the villainous threat is realized in a character created specifically for the movie. Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”) is the mayor’s wife, who campaigns to have the Bourbon shut down in a bid to clean up the Strip. Also, Paul Giamatti (“The Ides of March”) represents the slimeball factor of the music industry as Jaxx’s agent, who tries to turn Drew into a member of a boy band.
Much has been made of the movie’s PG-13 rating. The story very much embraces the 80’s pop culture notion of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll going hand in hand. They make a slight effort to tone down the drugs portion of that equation, although Jaxx is a heavy drinker and most of the action takes place in a bar. The rock ‘n roll is a given with the music, but I’m not sure how they intended to make a movie so centered on the L.A. sex industry without an ‘R’ rating. To be sure there’s no actual nudity, so the movie falls within the arbitrary standards of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, but the content is pervasively sexually suggestive. This stuff is not for 13-year-olds.
The music will please any fan of the 80s hair metal scene. The musical book is mostly inhabited by the popular power ballads of the era originally made famous by such bands as Journey, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Poison. Vocally the cast handles the songs very well, with Cruise doing a good deal of the heavy lifting on songs like “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me”. The romantic leads belt several popular songs by Journey and Foreigner to good effect. The songs performed by Zeta-Jones and her morality backup dancers seem a bit contradictory to their cause. Brand and Baldwin are certainly the weak points vocally, but they make up for it with their comic timing.
The visual direction of this musical collage of hair and leather by Adam Shankman is where the movie tends to trip over itself. Shankman’s last musical was the excellent “Hairspray”, which covered up a message of tolerance with a bubble gum pop sensibility that delighted in overblown emotions and cornball sentimentality. While cornball sentimentality is inherent in some of the over emotional ballads here, Shankman’s schmaltzy photography doesn’t always mesh with the darker production design dictated by the pop metal atmosphere of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Also, he lacks the social message to lend credibility to all this silliness.