Rock of Ages
It might have been cool to check out Rock of Ages, the original musical, when it premiered in L.A. in 2005. Its cast included, among others, Tenacious D’s mighty warrior Kyle Gass and geek comedian Chris Hardwick. Aside from that, there’s a lot that’s artificial and, well, stagey about this material that probably worked better on the boards. On the screen, it feels eerily remote, and it spends what feels like hours on a down-in-the-dumps middle section that makes the last act of Boogie Nights look jubilant. The story is an extremely basic parable about the power of rock and the importance of not losing your soul to fame. Except for the second part, that was handled far more winningly in School of Rock, starring Tenacious D’s other mighty warrior Jack Black. In fact, I would almost rather have seen School of Rock 2, picking up the kids ten years later, with Black as their manager.
But enough about imaginary films. The actual film under discussion has moments of light charm, and if you fetishize ’80s rock as much as I do, there are worse ways to spend two hours than to listen to the songs of (but generally not performed by) Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Poison, Guns ‘n Roses, and, God save us all, Quarterflash. The thing is, if you’re into the songs, you can listen to them at home on your iPod for free and not have to witness Twisted Sister joined in a contrapuntal shotgun wedding to Starship. The story involves two fresh-faced youngsters, Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta), struggling to make it in L.A. and uphold the standards of rock, which in this movie mostly means hair metal and power ballads. When Drew, late in the film, is obliged to front a boy band¹, the pop they produce sounds not much different from the “rock” as it’s arranged here.
It’s more than a little depressing that the ’80s are long enough ago that 1987 is seen in Rock of Ages — and not entirely inaccurately either — as an era as desperately naive as the ’60s era in Hairspray, an earlier and much better movie musical by Rock of Ages director Adam Shankman. Hairspray, by way of John Waters’ original script, was rooted in something serious: the racism of the day. The new movie seems to riff on parents’ and politicians’ horrified reactions to heavy metal — Catherine Zeta-Jones camps it up as the mayor’s wife, whose mission is to shut down the Bourbon Room, where all the bands play. As a theme, it feels wan and dated, even though people like Zeta-Jones are still very much with us, except they go after rap and video games now.
The two central kids sing well but are nearly completely without interest dramatically, so our attention turns gratefully to the pros whenever they’re on: Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the Bourbon’s owner and his right-hand man, respectively; Paul Giamatti as a slimy manager; Mary J. Blige, who isn’t asked to act much either but whose voice is powerful enough to make up for it; and mainly Tom Cruise, as Stacee Jaxx, a dissipated rock god who’s lost himself in excess. On the evidence of Magnolia, Tropic Thunder and this film, Cruise’s real future as an actor — rather than as a grip-and-grin star and action figure — is in small, vivid roles as part of an ensemble. As Stacee (the role originated by Chris Hardwick), Cruise is weirdly quiet, coming up underneath his lines; the character is little more than a caricature, but Cruise breathes idiosyncratic life into it. (He’s not a bad singer, either, though he and others — notably Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter — are likely autotuned.) Towards the end, when Stacee walks across a crowded room towards the woman who has (via the Foreigner ballad) made him know what love is, Cruise wears an expression of smitten torment that recalls his best work in the underrated Vanilla Sky. You may think he’s a dingbat in real life but you shouldn’t count him out as a force to stay interested in at the movies.
There’s a scene between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand that almost redeems the whole overlong movie; you should look it up on YouTube in a few months. Bizarrely, Sherrie is obviously named after Steve Perry’s 1984 hit “Oh Sherrie,” but the song appears nowhere in the film (it did in the stage musical), though we get a few teasing notes of it. Your response to how the music is used in Rock of Ages depends largely on how seriously you take the music, how tangled in your teenage memories it is; the film kicks off with a dreadful rendition of “Sister Christian,” and generally any scene in which the characters are delivering the songs in the vacuum of a soundstage sucks the life out of them (except for the Baldwin/Brand interpretation of “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” of course). In the few instances in which the songs are “performed live” — i.e., in front of an audience of extras — the music makes a little better sense and suggests why the stage musical might be a fun night out. The film, though, already feels like a made-for-VH1 movie.
¹The boy band appears in a video directed, in a cameo, by none other than Eli Roth, in perhaps the film’s best joke: here Roth is again, presiding over the torment of young men.