Director: Adam Shankman
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 123 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
In the opening scene of Rock of Ages, "small town girl" Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is traveling on a bus to L.A. with a suitcase full of records with big dreams of becoming a famous singer. It's 1987. And you'll never guess which classic 80's power ballad's piano riff start to play. Yes, it's Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." The song, rescued from relative obscurity by director Paul Thomas Anderson in 1997's Boogie Nights, resulting in one of cinema's most memorable musical moments, and making a previously cheesy song all of the sudden seem exceptionally cool. The exact opposite happens in this painful sequence where an entire busload of passengers and their driver awkwardly join Sherrie in a sing-a-long of it that plays like a poor man's version of the Almost Famous "Tiny Dancer" bus scene. And for a few brief minutes we're reminded again why we all thought "Sister Christian" was so corny to begin with and why it should be illegal for it to accompany any scene not involving a coked-out, gun-toting Alfred Molina and firecrackers. I'll probably need about a dozen viewings of that sequence just to cleanse myself of the song's silly cameo in this.
Of all the problems with this limp effort, that opening scene symbolizes its biggest. The movie isn't just unfunny, poorly paced and performed, but seems to have genuine disdain for its audience and the musical era it's supposedly celebrating. We'd be kidding ourselves by not admitting that the 80's had some awful music ripe for parody, but it's certainly not THIS bad. Maybe it was unintentional, but because the comedy doesn't work and the tone is off, I came away believing those involved in the making of this musical have very little affection for the music. There's even less respect for the plot and characters, both of which exist only as an excuse to cram in as many tunes as possible into a two hour film. There's medley after medley, as "Sister Christian" leads into "Just Like Paradise" and "Nothin' But a Good Time" as Sherrie meets Bourbon Room barkeep Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), also an aspiring singer, who convinces the club's owner Dennis Dupree (a mulleted Alec Baldwin) to hire her as a waitress. With the club deep in debt and its future uncertain, Dupree along with his assistant and eventual lover Lonny (Russell Brand) find a potential solution to their financial woes by enticing aging, hedonistic Arsenal frontman Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to play at the Bourbon. It's a gig his manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) hopes will ignite his client's fledgling solo career. He also sees potential in Drew, whose rise up the rock ranks causes a major rift between he and Sherrie.
None of these stories work because director Adam Shankman doesn't seem to care if they do, using them only as vehicles for abominable cover songs that bare little resemblance to what's actually happening on screen. But the most inexplicable sub-plot comes in the form of the Mayor's wife leading a religious crusade against the evils of rock, despite the entire music scene and time period being presented as nothing but squeeky clean and G-rated. And you've never seen anything quite like an angry Catherine Zeta-Jones dancing atrociously in a church singing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" while Bryan Cranston's Mayor Whitmore is tied up and spanked by his mistress, confirming that the wait for those final Breaking Bad episodes just might be more excruciating than we thought. Even the one thing everyone seemed to agree works, Cruise's performance as Stacee Jaxx, strangely didn't connect for me all the way because it's just too obviously inauthentic and calculated. He often comes off as Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise playing a washed-up rock legend in a storyline that seems more designed as career rejuvenation for the actor rather than the fabricated musician. It's essentially a extended celebrity cameo. When he's interviewed by Malin Akerman's mousy Rolling Stone reporter for what's supposed to be 8 minutes, it feels more like 8 hours because the entire sequence goes nowhere with roundabout questions, awkward silences and mumbling.
Sandwiched in between the never ending interview is Cruise covering Bon Jovi and Foreigner and doing surprisingly okay. His voice doesn't have much character and isn't particularly strong, but he gets the job done just fine. The same could be said for everyone else in the cast, with the obvious exception of Mary J. Blige who clearly the pipes to sing the hell out of these songs and does. It's mostly true that Cruise is the best thing in this, but but there isn't a moment where you're unaware he's giving a performance. Julianne Hough, previously so delightful in last year's Footloose remake, has all the air sucked out of her in this, doing what she can to rescue a thankless character whose voice seems too chirpy to be signing 80's hair metal. As the lead, it's to her credit that she somehow comes out of this unscathed, and maybe also to Diego Boneto, who's so bland and lifeless opposite her that I sometimes forgot he was even in the movie at all. But it was great to see a Tower Records store again, even if they never actually sold guitars. I liked that the filmmakers thought they did.
Musicals aren't supposed to be boring. Worse yet, the 80's music scene was gritty and over-the-top but the film goes out of its way to be anything but, playing it safe and never straying outside the lines. Shankman's right that this material can only be treated as goofy comedy but at many points I was confused as to what we were supposed to find funny, or whether it was unintentional or not. At other even less successful points, it plays like a depressing drama. This had all the ingredients to be successful, but this seems like another case of the stage production being transposed to the screen without the adjustments to make it seem cinematic in any way other than adding movie stars. It doesn't look or feel like the 80's and the streets don't even look like streets, but sets. In this way it resembles the almost equally unsuccessful adaptation of Rent, which was at least somewhat saved by an engaging (if dated) story to fall back on.
In the best musicals, the music informs and mirrors the script, almost as if it's organically sprung from it. This is just song after song after song with no breathing room for the story or characters. If there's a silver lining it's that it's easy envisioning Rock of Ages evolving into some kind of cult guilty pleasure like Xanadu or Grease 2 with moviegoers at midnight showings dressed in 80's clothes and throwing things at the screen. It has that same fascinatingly awful quality and evokes a "What Did I Just Watch?" reaction that kind of makes you want to experience it again just to confirm the ridiculousness. If only it were more fun. That I could still easily re-watch it may reveal more about my affinity for the era and its music than anything else. But at least that's something. Audiences probably wanted to love this too, but the movie just seems too embarrassed with itself and the music to truly let them in.