Review: ‘Rock Of Ages’ is movie-star karaoke and oh-so-silly

Musicals are one of the most unusual genres in all of film, and I am fascinated by any attempt to create one, especially in a modern age where filmgoers do not have them as part of their daily cinematic diet.

There is a moment early on in “Rock Of Ages” where Julianne Hough, playing Sherrie Christian, is on a bus on her way to the big city, ready to make her dreams of music stardom come true.  She begins to sing “Sister Christian,” and while the song choice may have made ’80s survivors smile, it wasn’t until the rest of the passengers on the bus also begin to sing that the audience around me started to laugh.  It’s that moment where any musical makes the leap from reality to the world of the movie, and if your audience is willing to go with you, you’re gold.

Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb are credited with the adaptation here, along with Chris D’Arienzo who created the piece for the stage, and it’s painting in big bright primary colors.  There is not a subtle moment in the movie.  The entire thing is pitched at this sort of full-volume level, everything spelled out with the most literal interpretation of song lyrics and the most exaggerated character types, so there’s no chance you’re going to miss anything.  “Prometheus,” this is not.

I would not consider myself a fan of Adam Shankman’s work overall, but I do think he did nice work on “Hairspray,” and I was hoping this return to the musical would be as charming overall.  And while there’s a lot of business in the film that does deliver a charge of sorts, including some of the details of recreating the Los Angeles Sunset Strip of 1987, there’s no real weight to this prototypical rags-to-riches-to-dissatisfaction-to-true-love story… and I don’t think anyone involved would argue that they were aiming for anything more than the movie star karaoke that it tries to be.

“Hairspray” benefitted from the source material, both the musical by O’Donnell and Meehan and the original film by John Waters, and there’s weight to what Waters did, mixing his own outrageous sensibilities with a great story about a turning point in race relations.  “Rock Of Ages” is about Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), both bright-eyed kids who have dreams of fame.  They meet working at the film’s slightly-fictionalized version of the Whiskey A-Go-Go, now called The Bourbon Room, and Dennis Dupress (Alec Baldwin) runs the place along with Lonny (Russell Brand).  Dennis is drowning in bills, worried about the future of the club, and he relies on his most famous showbiz friend, uberstar Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), to help him keep the doors open.  The closest the film gets to any issue is with the story that deals with Mayoral candidate Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Tipper Gore-esque moral crusader who is determined to shut the Bourbon Room and the whole Sunset Strip down and chase people like Stacee Jaxx out of LA, and the entire subplot seems to be an excuse for Catherine Zeta-Jones to MILF her way through a few musical numbers including a version of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” that was apparently choreographed by the dancers at Nude Nudes Nude by the airport.

You cannot discuss this film without discussing the jaw-dropping performance by Tom Cruise that I believe may exist on a plane beyond “good” or “bad.”  It is so committed, so absolutely heartfelt and full-bore on the part of Cruise, that I am fascinated that it even exists.  This occupies a special place on the continuum of Tom Cruise performances… and keep in mind, I’m a first generation Tom Cruise fan.  I saw “Taps” and “The Outsiders” in the theater, and I absolutely noticed the work he did in both.  His final scene in “Taps” might be my favorite thing in that entire movie. I honestly don’t care about his personal life.  He’s done so much so well over the course of the 30 or so movies he’s made that I just like looking at what choices he makes in a role, how he throws himself into whatever it is he’s been asked to do.  I get the feeling that for him, singing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is no different than climbing the outside of that building in Dubai.  He does these things that are terrifying, where he could just destroy himself, and he does them with a zeal.  My favorite Cruise moments are the ones where he makes big choices and really gives it everything he’s got.  He’s got one of his best entrances in any film here, an iconic little bit of debauched satyr fun that says a lot about his character, who is the super-heterosexual amalgam of every lead singer in every hair metal band ever.  He’s superstar level, and he’s long since left reality behind.  He lives in this free-floating cloud of sex and drugs and a pet trained monkey named Hey Man and money and sex and sex and, occasionally, a performance, and he may or may not totally be playing a part that allows him to watch everyone’s reaction to his lunacy, looking for people brave enough to be honest with him, amused by everyone who isn’t.  Basically, he seems like the hard rock icon as filtered though Tom Cruise’s own personal 30 year run as a pop sensation movie star.

Paul Giamatti plays his manager, and he’s got the scumbag cranked all the way up.  He’s really just got that one note to play, though, and that’s the film’s biggest issue.  Once you get it, you can count on that same thing for the next two hours.  There are very few surprises in the film.  It’s just a matter of waiting for the next song to see how they use something like “Juke Box Hero” or “More Than Words” or, in the movie’s most insane sequence, “I Want To Know What Love Is.”  As soon as someone stars singing, if you know the song, then you can pretty much guess what’s about to happen.

It is absurd, and like I said, obvious, but everyone seems to have given the film 100%.  Malin Akerman is a Rolling Stone reporter who interviews Stacee, alternately attacking him for selling him and attacking him to get his clothes off, and she has to go toe-to-toe with Cruise, who sells every song like his life depends on it.  Mary J. Blige shows up as the owner of a strip club, the guardian angel to Sherrie when her dreams start to fall apart, and while she’s not terribly comfortable as an actor, she sells each song like… well, like Mary J. Blige.  By the time you get to a mash-up number with Catherine Zeta-Jones and her posse singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at a crowd of hardcore rock fans led by Russell Brand singing “We Built This City,” the squarest song ever written, with Will Forte as a TV reporter running back and forth between them, either you’ll be clapping along or you’ll be involuntarily on your feet and cringing towards the door.  I don’t think there’s going to be much middle ground with a film like this.

Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough are the leads of the movie, and it’s telling that they’re the least interesting actors in the cast.  She’s got a Minnie Mouse voice and looks like she was designed by airbrush for the cover of a Ratt album, and he’s got the exact sort of big bland voice that offends absolutely no one.  For a movie that wants to celebrate the spirit of rock’n’roll, this is about as squeaky clean as it can be.  For a PG-13 film, it does seem to be unusually preoccupied with sex, but it’s like “Grease.”  It’s dirty, but it somehow gets away with it because everybody’s so gosh-darned cute about it.  The most carnal presence in the movie is Zeta-Jones, who looks like she’s about to twitch her business skirts right off in most of her dance numbers, but even she manages to make a bondage biker get-up look positively wholesome, like she’s a soccer mom playing naughty dress-up.  Real rock, the kind that does rally protests and drive people crazy, has teeth.  It is genuinely dangerous.  That’s the point.  You have to believe that a rock show could erupt into a full blown burn the world down riot at any point, and “Rock Of Ages” offers up exactly the sort of smooth-edged Broadway version of rock that you’d expect.  I expect that this will be my 70-year-old mother’s favorite movie about the heyday of Motley Crue ever made… so take that for what it’s worth.

“Rock Of Ages” opens everywhere on Friday.