Do you love cover bands? Do you love karaoke? Do you love musicals? And, most important, do you love 80s hair-band power ballads?
If so, then Rock of Ages is probably right up your alley. Director Adam Shankman, who has specialized in cheerful populist entertainment throughout his career — including the musical adaptation Hairspray and the broad comedy Bringing Down the House — delivers musical numbers well-designed for the big screen, tightly edited in a blitzkrieg fashion that would make any modern action thriller proud.
The screenplay, credited to Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2), Chris D’Arienzo (Barry Munday), and Allan Loeb (The Dilemma, Just Go With It), is based on the long-running stage musical (book by D’Arienzo), and opens up the action to a degree.
The setting is The Bourbon Room, a venerable Hollywood hotspot owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and run with the assistance of the loyal Lonny (Russell Brand). Lately the club has fallen on hard times, and Dennis is counting on the final gig by the legendary band Arsenal, managed by tough cookie Paul Gill (Paul Giammti), to pump up his coffers. Arsenal’s notoriously unreliable leader, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), is breaking up the band to go solo.
The club is also under attack from newly-elected Mayor Mike Whitemore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The framing device is the romantic relationship of Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), an aspiring singer and recent arrival from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), an aspiring singer and waiter at the club.
In their supporting roles, Baldwin and Brand are snappy and eminently watchable. Their delivery is better than most of their material, but they are such seasoned comedic performers that it’s a pleasure to watch them whenever they appear.
The same cannot be said for the young Ms. Hough and Mr. Boneta. Granted that they are intended to represent the classic archetypes of wholesome Middle America, but they are so bland and vanilla that they tend to disappear into the backdrop rather than sizzle in the lead, as required.
Yet they fare better than Cruise, who is the Jar Jar Binks of the production. He is meant to be a charismatic performer, a sexual god who makes women faint at the sight of him. A portion of that is meant to be over the top, but Cruise is a humorless performer, and the film stops dead whenever he is “acting” dramatic. With his eyes hooded with heavy eye shadow, his age is apparent, and it seems to be a deliberate choice, to emphasize that he’s lost his edge and is slowly tumbling toward oblivion. Everyone is oblivious to the idea that Stacee Jaxx is past his prime, however; he’s still treated as though he’s the bee’s knees.
That speaks to the crux of the film: its effectiveness depends almost entirely upon your reaction to the concept and the music.
For me, the late 80s represents a wasteland era in popular music, a time when adult-oriented radio took hold across the nation’s airwaves and the soul was sucked out of rock ‘n’ roll. Watching Rock of Ages, therefore, is akin to a personal nightmare in which my remote control breaks during an endless episode of VH1’s “I Love the 80s — the Hair-Band Power Ballad Edition.”
Even if the musical aspect of the musical could be put aside, though — admittedly, an impossible proposition — there’s the matter of the cover-band flavoring. In essence, all we have here are secondhand versions of traditional favorites, without the kick that might come from hearing everything live. None of the performances stand on their own; they’re overly-dependent on nostalgia.
As noted, however, some people love cover bands and this particular brand of music and may look forward to humming along with songs like “Sister Christian” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and the like, in which case: Help yourself.
Rock of Ages opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, June 15.