Here we have a prime example of a movie that’s shamelessly entertaining in spite of the fact it’s not very good. Adam Shankman’s off-Broadway play adaptation Rock of Ages is cheesier than a Wisconsin fondue party, and sloppier than Motley Crue’s dressing room, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t win me over with its infectious combination of high energy, go-for-the-gusto performances and straight-faced gee-whiz clichés. This wholly synthetic ode to the (embarrassing) 80s hair metal movement is deliciously ridiculous, boasting a lengthy series of amusingly bombastic movie star karaoke sessions turned up to 11, with dignity and subtlety gleefully drowned out by the power chord nirvana. If you’ve ever wanted to see a tattooed, leather chaps-sporting Tom Cruise drunkenly carouse with lusty groupies while crooning Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” this is the movie for you. All others should consider themselves forewarned.
Set in a Disneyland version of 1987 L.A. – where sex and drugs occur discreetly off-screen and everyone rocks out responsibly with no ill consequences – Rock of Ages stars drop dead gorgeous former Dancing with the Stars champion Julianne Hough as Sherrie Christian, a not-so-bright Midwestern farm girl who travels to the City of Angels to sing and dance. Or something. After having her luggage, which consists solely (!) of treasured LPs, jacked, the pixie-ish blonde princess fortuitously befriends hunky bartender/aspiring frontman Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), and is offered a job at hot downtown nightclub The Bourbon Room. Overseen by burned out owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his sassy right hand man Lonny (Russell Brand), the financially struggling establishment is mere days away from hosting a register-busting hometown performance by spaced out glam metal legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and his soon to be dissolved band Arsenal.
The plot is, to be honest, little more than a crudely strung up clothesline for songs – and only slightly edgier than, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cornball “classic” State Fair – so fortunately former Hairspray helmer Shankman instead focuses on delivering enough flamboyant, head-banging numbers (roughly 20) to satiate those with a taste for gloriously catchy/dopey anthems. Unlike Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), the director doesn’t dice his set-pieces into MTV-edited spasms of chaotic activity. He isn’t afraid to simply pull back and allow us to watch the performance unfold in basic, unflashy shots.
Shankman also knows how to play to his all-star casts’ strengths. Film leads Hough and Boneta aren’t exactly dramatic powerhouses – their romance consists of off-the-shelf parts that were outdated by the close of the 1950s – but they look fantastic on camera and the director wisely emphasizes their singing and dancing skills over their questionable thespian abilities. Zeta-Jones, in full haughty outrage, summons up some of her fiery Chicago spirit, especially in a church-set rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” Giamatti milks his trademark Garfield-voiced opportunistic creep and Baldwin and Brand draw huge laughs with an unexpected song collaboration. Bryan Cranston is a hoot as a hedonistic hypocrite, though it’s to Rock of Ages detriment he’s never given a golden chance to belt out a ballad of his own.
All that said, it’s Tom Cruise who’s having the biggest ball here as an Axl Rose-esque decadent nutbar. Flanked by a sassy baboon named Hey Man, and rambling on in nonsensical pseudo-intellectual blitherings, the actor both kids his bizarre real world public persona and creates a magnetically compelling comic creation. And who knew he could sing?! He brings prowling panther attitude to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and, alongside hot librarian-styled Akerman, reaches a deliriously funny zenith with a raunchy seductive duet of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Alas, the script by Justin Theroux (Iron Man 2), Allan Loeb (Just Go with It, 21) and play creator Chris D’Arienzo - which apparently only loosely follows the theatrical source material - is kind of a mess, both tonally and structurally. The film often switches gears between spoof and starry-eyed sincerity without ever finding a comfortable balance. Instead, it’s a slightly too-longish rough assembly of moments that hit the right notes enough times to please, yet could have been greatly improved with some tightening and trimming. Perhaps a little less Baldwin and Brand hijinx (their brief early performance of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” feels like it was shot on a lunch break), or scenes set inside a never-nude strip club run by tough-edged madam Mary J. Blige. And that bad laugh-inducing “Sister Christian” opening number never should have left the editing room.
At the end of the day, the likelihood of you deriving enjoyment from Shankman’s silly opus will depend on how receptive you are to the picture’s giddy, winking 80s nostalgia campiness and whether you can semi-swallow its assertion that hair metal was rock’s last great artistic movement (never mind that the trash and grunge revolutions that soon followed were a direct response to the superficiality of glam). Rock of Ages is a purely unapologetic guilty pleasure, sailing by on the enduring fist-pumping magnificence of its huge sing-a-long choruses. If you can march along to its outlandish beat it’s a goofy, exuberant fun time at the movies.
3 out of 5
*Originally published at Converge Magazine.