'Rock of Ages' Hits Wrong Notes
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
An entertainment columnist of my acquaintance has written that this movie, adapted from a theater musical whose song score consists of various '80s rock chestnuts, "really works on a 'campy rock and roll good time' level." I can't say I quite agree. In fact, I'd say that the more you know from rock 'n' roll, the less you'll like "Rock of Ages." It's kind of the inverse of "This Is Spinal Tap" in that respect.
Yes, the movie does have an attractive and competent and wide-ranging cast and an ostensibly light-hearted feel. It's directed by Adam Shankman, whose talent for revenue-generating lowest-common-denominator comedy was proved with "Bringing Down the House" and who subsequently proved apt at sanding down the rough edges of John Waters-originated material with his movie version of "Hairspray."
The '80s fashions and hairstyles are what some would call a "hoot," and the tunes are all familiar, if not entirely inspired. (I'm just gonna come out and say that, revisionist rock criticism aside, a whole lot of hair bands or hair metal bands or whatever you want to call them made it big without ever writing what's traditionally known as a "good" song. I know that when Bob Rock started producing their records -- Mr. Rock has a cameo in this film, if I'm not mistaken -- it became a kind of inverse rock snob thing to start saying Motley Crue was "good," but they were neither good nor "good," particularly in the songwriting department, aside from a couple of textbook choruses that they were probably handed by a label rep to begin with. There, I said it. Now Guns 'n' Roses were something else entirely ... oh, wait, this is a movie review. Sorry.)
The story line pits a young dream couple, Sherrie and Drew (fresh-faced Julianne Hough and equally wholesome-looking Diego Boneta) against the garish, decadent, backstabbing, but oh-so-seductive rock 'n' roll world of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Sherrie, as you may infer, is "just a small town girl" who's new to the, um, "street lights, people" of big bad Hollywood, but the club owner played by Alec Baldwin isn't as hard-assed as he seems. Both Drew and Sherrie are of course musically inclined, and it seems as if their dreams are on their way to fulfillment, until disastrous misunderstanding strikes in the form of zonked-out metal icon Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who's the object of disapprobation for both the moral-crusader wife of the mayor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) who thinks Jaxx has sold out his talent, and appears to be offering her services as muse.
This is all well and good for a cinematic endeavor that, for all intents and purposes, is asking the consumer to put down his or her money to watch movie stars do karaoke. Since that sort of thing doesn't really personally interest me, I focused on other aspects and found myself a little confused. Cruise comes on like he's doing his own idea of a Syd Barrett impersonation a lot of the time, and his near-brain-dead out-of-it-ness is supposed to be funny, I know. But it makes his turning around and belting out a piece of hair-band braggadocio like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" (another song I don't much like) seem a trifle ... incongruous. As for the karaoke portion, I'm afraid Cruise gets a low mark here. He has a pleasant but characterless tenor that's plainly been processed up the wazoo, and he has pretty much zero phrasing or vocal swagger, which is just the sort of thing that can make an engaging singer out of a characterless tenor. Hough and Boneta belt pluckily, Zeta-Jones brings the stuff she brought to her excellent recent work on Broadway in "A Little Night Music" (too bad her part is relatively small), but the panache award goes to Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand for their off-kilter duet on an REO Speedwagon song whose title if cited here might constitute a spoiler. Suffice it to say that when Mary J. Blige shows up, the contrast between her singing and the rest of the cast's becomes very pronounced.
At a few minutes over two hours, this trifle is really something of a saga, and after Drew and Sherrie break up because Drew thinks she's serviced Jaxx, we get the dramatic broken-dreams portion wherein Drew is finagled into joining a cheesy boy band and Sherrie actually becomes a stripper. We are led to believe that these are poor career choices for these kids, but on the other hand, the movie's attitude to the height of rock aspiration from which they've temporarily fallen is so, well, glib, that it's difficult not to see these alternatives as a case of six of one, half dozen of the other. It's probably overthinking things to accuse this movie of nihilism, but on the other hand, given the script was partially written by Justin Theroux, who was also behind the double-dealing showbiz-self-hatred epic "Tropic Thunder," I think I could make a real case. But there's really not much point, because whether this movie hits or misses with audiences has nothing to do with what it says or represents, and everything to do with whether you're willing to part with your money to see movie stars do karaoke. And if you are, then enjoy.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.