Guest Movie Review: Rock of Ages
“Three songs, no covers.” That line, uttered by star Alex Baldwin, is the biggest lie of Rock of Ages, the film adaptation of the 2006 Tony-nominated musical of the same name. The movie from director Adam Shankman (whose “epic works” include The Pacifier and Bedtime Stories) is a whole two hours of covers. 80’s rock & roll covers, to be exact, from legendary groups like Def Leppard, Poison and Twisted Sister. For some people, that’s all you will need to fully enjoy this Broadway send-up, which combines the tawdriness of rock with the class of the stage. I decided this was the best of the limited options this past weekend, and the question is: can the awesomeness of rock & roll, plus nostalgia for the eighties, carry not only a light-hearted premise, but an entire film?
The film takes place in 1987, when Sherrie Christian (Footloose and Dancing with the Stars’ Julianne Hough) leaves her home in Oklahoma to make it as a singer in Los Angeles. She soon gets a job at The Bourbon Room, a bar and rock venue on the Sunset Strip, and meets and falls in love with another aspiring rock singer, Drew (Diego Boneta). Breaking out as a musician of course proves more difficult than expected, with big breaks rare and often not quite what than they appear. The Bourbon Room is also in trouble, with owner Dennis Dupree (Baldwin) and bar manager Lonny (Russell Brand) in dire financial straits, praying that the upcoming final show of Arsenal and legendary frontman Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) will revive their troubled bar. Finally, rock & roll itself is under attack. Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the wife of the city’s mayor (Bryan Cranston) and has resolved to clean up the streets, starting with the “vile” Strip and The Bourbon Room’s propensity for promoting alcohol, sex, and “hateful music.”
Well, at least Shankman and company give this a serious attempt. Of the almost two dozen musical numbers that we see on the big screen, most feature either instantly recognizable tunes from yesteryear or inspired blends of the same. These blends of famous songs are by far the best the soundtrack has to offer, as inspiring mixes include combining Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But more often single songs are just sampled, and fans will rejoice at seeing Tom Cruise croon “Pour Some Sugar on Me” or the legendary Mary J. Blige lending her vocal talents to Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.” The cast impressively does their own singing, making each number feel more like an original experience than a second-rate American Idol audition. Shankman obviously drew upon his musical experience (he’s directed both the film adaptation of Hairspray and episodes of Glee), and the result is a better-than-solid musical presence that does a good job of keeping the pace of the movie going strong.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t help when the best performers happen to be strippers. Oh, I’m sorry… “Exotic Dancers.” During one set, these young women show impressive “core strength” (Todd’s description, and an apt one at that), and they by far set the high water mark for physical performance in a motion picture this year, especially when you consider not a single frame of CGI was used. The acting, meanwhile, is hit or miss. It doesn’t help that the film’s leads are about as interesting as dry paint; the doe-eyed Hough is at least tolerable, not so Boneta. Musically they’re fine, but the movie focuses a good deal of attention on these two, so the fact that they can’t be counted on is just about the worst mistake Rock of Ages makes.
On the other hand, casting Paul Giamatti as a manipulative music agent was a genius move, and while he doesn’t sing anything himself, he still proves himself one of the most talented performers working today. The rest of the cast falls short of this, though most at least manage to tread water. I’m sure Blige would have been a stand-out had it not seemed like her character had been pared down to the bare-bones necessities (and had she arrived sooner than the film’s unfortunately dull second half). Cruise also feels shoehorned in, and while his temperamental, often intentionally-vacant performance as Stacee Jaxx reminds us that he actually has some talent (though it’s not as much of a stretch from his public persona as he and his agent might have imagined), his sporadic appearances do little to expand the role beyond that of a glorified guest star. Zeta-Jones can act up a storm, but here something seems to blunt physical performance skills that were a huge reason she won an Academy Award for Chicago. Cranston and Watchmen’s Malin Akerman do little in bit roles, though both provide welcome asides that veer the story away from the romantic leads (honestly, I’ll watch the excellent Cranston in just about anything).
The film’s best moments however are those that deign to include Baldwin and Brand; their natural ability to create mirth allows their scenes to rise far above the rest, even those that are melody-free. Sure, seeing Baldwin bust a move is almost painful, but at least it’s comically painful. These two jokesters – in the best traditions of Stephano and Trinculo – manage to almost make up for Rock of Ages’ many flaws.
Of course, that’s no easy feat with two bad leads, and Rock of Ages fails to overcome this obvious weakness in focusing far too much of its plot on the love troubles of the attractive-but-incredibly-boring Sherrie and Drew. On top of this is the fact that too many of the film’s songs seem to have been picked completely at random, coming as close to what was needed for the story as possible instead of mixing tunes to exactly what was needed. For instance, the meaning behind “Any Way You Want It” is so warped for the film that it’s a wonder they didn’t blend it with another melody to make it more relevant to the particular plot point. Even cameos from rockers old (Debbie Gibson, Kevin Cronin, and others) and new (Constantine Maroulis, Porcelain Black) can’t hide the fact that this film is an imperfectly balanced, making some of the greater errors in transferring a stage musical to the big screen. About half of a decent movie, Rock can at least claim to be better than the bottom-feeding adaptation of Sweeny Todd. But it never comes close to the pantheon of Chicago, West Side Story, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or even Little Shop of Horrors.
Rock of Ages has its hilarious moments (I’ll never be able to listen to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” the same way again), and it’s vaguely reassuring that rock band Journey has the power to make things right in the end, but the film lacks a voice or message worth listening to. This is a show that tries to appeal to the Glee generation while hearkening back to the era of middle-aged rock fans, without really succeeding in drawing either. If you really think that nostalgia and good rock & roll is enough, then by all means this musical montage might be good enough for you. But for those looking for that new hit show, Rock is not for the ages, but just a passing fancy. Pick up the soundtrack, pop it in and close your eyes. Right there is all the Rock of Ages experience you really need.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast working in Boston. Check out his latest film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson three times a week.