For those attuned to letting the narrow filter of mainstream rock radio define their nostalgia, ROCK OF AGES ought to serve as a headbanging blast from the past. Repurposing a flurry of hair-metal "classics" of twenty-plus years ago, ROCK OF AGES isn't just a musical about the eighties, it's like a musical made
in the eighties. At least, that's what it wants to be. Certain gags, plot twists and sensibilities scream 2012, even if, in our post-"Glee" world, they're hopelessly clichéd and predictable already. I guess to that end, since this is a musical, we're supposed to give the stale plot a pass (two stale plots, actually: A. Small-town girl comes to L.A. to make it big and is subsequently waylaid by harsh reality, and B. The awesome rock club must be saved from bankruptcy and self-righteous protestors.). But I don't think Bob Fosse, for one, would've wanted it that way. He's the one who, decades ago, resuscitated Broadway with a certain eye-opening intelligent decadence. ROCK OF AGES blasts to the screen via Broadway, just as Fosse's CHICAGO and CABARET did back in the day. But ROCK OF AGES is a long, long way from Fosse in any respectable sense.
ROCK OF AGES seems to actually set out to be a distilled cartoon version of the era it represents, the waning-yet-still-passionate late 1980s Los Angeles spandex and debauchery rock n' roll scene. Yes, the hair metal phenomenon is pretty hilarious in retrospect, but beyond playing a very thorough game of hardcore dress-up to accompany their positively innocuous actor-sung hit parade ("You know every song we play!")
, there's little evidence that the makers of ROCK OF AGES truly understand what makes rock (even this era) special. You know the film's Powers That Be are missing something vital about rock music when the film's climax dueling medley pits rebellious rockers on one side of the street singing Starship's power pop Top 40 hit "We Build This City" versus a mob of buttoned up repressed protestors who counter attack with Twisted Sister's unruly anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It". The universe just fell that much more out of balance.
The terminally fresh-faced leads, Julianne Hough as the initially naïve Sherrie Christian and Diego Boneta as implausible budding rocker Drew Boley (he writes "Don't Stop Believin'", a ubiquitous anthem I've railed insanely against in the past
), start off by being put through some downright howlingly embarrassing sequences (it takes a while to shake off the beginning, Sherrie's wide-eyed step off the bus into L.A. after being serenaded by her fellow travelers singing "Sister Christian") only end up playing out a vague version of GREASE. But GREASE, for whatever shortcomings can be leveled upon it, boasts, among other things, solid, memorable original tunes. A transparent contraption like ROCK OF AGES is not only content to repurpose pre-existing hits to accomplish its tiring decompressed narrative (at an exhausting 123 minutes, the hits just keep on coming. And coming... And coming...), it actually uses them as the bedrock of its very identity. Take away the music of Poison, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, et al, and all you're left with is an empty stage.
That is, until Tom Cruise shows up.
Reducing the term "wholly committed" to an uproarious understatement, Cruise's cocksure aging rock legend Stacee Jaxx (think David Lee Roth blended with Axl Rose, but loopier with a dragon codpiece, obnoxious pet monkey, and possible moral compass) is a sublime presence in an otherwise tepid basin. In a perpetually baked haze yet somehow impossibly ripped (thanks, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise!), Jaxx is the kind of rock god who greets every female by grabbing her breast in the first five seconds. In life, this course of action typically results in one of two possible outcomes: A slap across the face, or the opposite. Stacee Jaxx has never been slapped. In short, he's the comical version of Cruise's MAGNOLIA character, remedying that character's rock-star-without-a-rock-act frustration.
Outside the confines of the film itself, there will no doubt be many who will reject the idea of Cruise as a rock idol due to his perceived pompousness being pushed to insanely obvious proportions (someone once observed that every famous actor and athlete really just wants to be a rock star), not to mention an apparent furtherance of the film's cartoonish homosexualizing of then-edgy rock music. These observations are relatable, but are ultimately shortsighted, as they flat-out dismiss Tom Cruise's uncanny ability to commit without flinching, elevating, if not saving many a project. When it comes to reasons to see ROCK OF AGES, Cruise is solo on that playlist.
On the other hand, past reliable elevators of projects Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand, and, most egregiously, Alec Baldwin, now all share ROCK OF AGES as their collective "jump the shark" effort. All three sport jokishly embarrassing fake 80's hair, which is to be expected in a film like this. But Giamatti's ponytailed rock manager is one weaselly devil too many on the talent actor's resume, whereas Baldwin is reduced to a one-note gay joke of a club owner, sharing a few numbers and personal space with Brand, who is only around for expository clowning. (If you laugh at his quips about Michael Jackson looking pale and DIRTY DANCING references, consider going back to Comedy school.)
The posturing glam rock world of ROCK OF AGES, with it's PG-13 strip clubs and confusing mishmash of which famous bands exist in this world and which are distilled to Stacee Jaxx material (Styx and Def Leppard exist, Journey, Poison and Bon Jovi not so much) is about as realistic as RED TAILS was historically accurate; that film quite forgivable on that front. So the issue lies not there but rather with the sheer whacked-out ratio of inflated trite exhibition to worthy spectacle - the balance is so heavy in the negative, there's no comparison. The whole thing's hollow, and they just don't get it. Director Adam Shankman (HAIRSPRAY), an established movie musical director, means well with his energized take on glam machismo and the world that surrounded it, but ultimately, ROCK OF AGES is a film that has a much brighter (ironic) future perhaps in drag queen clubs than with those of us who actually piled up our hair, went to loud concerts, and headbanged righteously. Despite Cruise's go-for-broke-'til-it-breaks presence, this is an improperly "Glee"-ified film musical occupied only by caricatures that need to go back to the warmed-over homogenized Clear Channel radio stations from whence they came.
- Jim Tudor