Rock and Roll hits the big-screen as Rock of Ages is released to the masses. And Tom Cruise is the best part. 411's Jeremy Wilson checks in with his full review!
Directed by: Adam Shankman Written by: Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arenzio and Allan Loeb Based on a book from the musical Rock of Ages by: Chris D'Arenzio
Sherrie Christian: Julianne Hough Drew Boley: Diego Boneta Lonny Barnett: Russell Brand Dennis Dupree: Alex Baldwin Stacee Jaxx: Tom Cruise Paul Gill: Paul Giamatti Patricia Whitmore: Catherine Zeta-Jones Mike Whitemore: Bryan Cranston Constance Sack: Malin Åkerman Justice Charlier: Mary J. Blige Mitch Miley: Will Forte Stacee Jaxx's Bodyguard: Kevin Nash
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language. Running Time: 123 minutes
I dread reviews like this, because it puts me in a no-win situation. If I say I hated Rock of Ages, that for the vast majority of its running time I found it dreadfully boring and that there is literally nothing in the way of story, characters or thematic relevance beyond “man, weren't the '80's sweet,” I will inevitably get attacked as a snotty critic who can't lighten up and will be subjected to the “what did you expect?” line of defense some will employ for a movie such as this. If, however, I say I loved – or even marginally liked – Rock of Ages, that Tom Cruise gives one of the most surreal, deepest performances of his career, that I absolutely don't hate most of the music...well, I'll hear it from those who like to fancy themselves music critics, who firmly believe the numbers in this movie are one of the deepest cultural ebbs ever as well as hearing from those who despise musicals in general. There is also the added specter that a film like Rock of Ages could find life among the masses as a “so-bad-it's-good,” midnight, campy, cult classic ala The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Many a critic has been made to look the fool in the wake of a film's out-of-nowhere staying power and I don't think it's totally inconceivable that that could be the case with Rock of Ages. After all, if musicals such as Rocky Horror, The Sound of Music and Grease can find life three decades later as campy, communal, “in-on-the-joke” sing-alongs where audiences actively dress the part and sing with those on-screen, anything is possible when it comes to Rock of Ages, a film that seems to have skipped any pretense at being a legitimate movie.
I also dread having to try and recommend or dissuade people from seeing a film like this, because in all honesty, it really all depends on how weird you like your movies and what your tolerance level is for musicals, the late '80's hair metal/glam rock period and the PG-13 sheen of Disney-fied Rock & Roll. I'm not even sure I can convince myself one way or the other; how am I supposed to try and convince folks who haven't seen it? Well, here goes my best shot.
Rock of Ages is the first major mainstream movie musical since Nine, although this jukebox musical has more in common with Mamma Mia! The movie starts out with Sherrie (Julianne Hough) literally on a bus out of Oklahoma, headed to the bright lights and big dreams of Los Angeles circa 1987. You will know very early on (as in the first five minutes) whether Rock of Ages is your kind of movie as the entire bus joins Sherrie in a rendition of Night Ranger's “Sister Christian,” which is a pretty mediocre rendition of a pretty dreadful song. So literally, 90 seconds in and this movie is throwing down the gauntlet. Again, it must be said, if you hate the worst aspects of musicals or the late '80's music that this movie not only consists of, but revels in, you might as well walk out at that point, because it is not going to get better from your perspective. In fact, what are you even doing reading this review if that's the case?
The opening scenes move briskly with a quick transition into a cover of David Lee Roth's “Just Like Paradise” as Sherrie finally gets to LA and wraps up with the introduction of male lead Drew (Diego Boneta) and the Bourbon Room (inspired by the Whiskey A Go-Go) owned by Dennis Dupree (Alex Baldwin) who together belt out Poison's “Nothin' but a Good Time.” This latter number instantly contends with Pierce Brosnan's numbers in Mamma Mia! as the worst on-screen singing performance in recent memory, since it is plainly clear that Alec Baldwin can't, won't and shouldn't sing. Sherrie gets mugged (losing her prized records in the process) and since Drew can't get her stuff back he helps her get a job at The Bourbon Room.
To wrap up the rest of the plot: Dupree and The Bourbon Room are behind on taxes and are desperate for the cash influx that Stacee Jaxx's (Tom Cruise) last performance with his band Arsenal will bring in. Unfortunately, Dupree is depending on a very unreliable rock star and his oily, sleazeball manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) who ends up taking every last dime. This leaves the club open to attack from the Mayor and his wife (Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones) who are looking to clean up The Sunset Strip and rid the world of all the devil music. There's also your typical Act II misunderstanding that interrupts Sherrie and Drew's blossoming love, as well as a sublime, surreal, bizarre (however you want to describe it) gay attraction between club owner Dupree and his club's manager Lonny Barnett. This of course leads to the two sharing a duet of REO Speedwagon's “Can't Fight This Feeling” and to a very confused audience who aren't sure whether they're meant to laugh (at all the gayness) or sit stunned at Shankman's chutzpah. Judging from the screening I attended, the audience opted for the former and this was indeed the scene that got the biggest laughs and whoops of the entire movie.
However, plot and characters aren't what Rock of Ages is about. It's about the music, and with roughly 26 numbers strewn over the 123 minute runtime, Rock of Ages has a smörgåsbord of '80's hair metal and power ballads. The volume and orchestration are turned up to 11 on nearly every number ranging from mashups featuring “Juke Box Hero”/ “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Shadows of the Night” / “Harden My Heart,” and the almost mandatory “We Built This City” / “We're Not Gonna Take It,” while also including surreal numbers such as Catherin Zeta-Jones's Michael Jackson-esque, bump-and-grind “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” taking place in a church and Tom Cruise's rendition of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” that will forever be imprinted in my mind. And yet.
While almost every number is in some way ridiculous and surreal, the vast majority are also curiously devoid of life and Shankman brings nothing to the table as director. When you're basically doing a movie chalk full of covers, you have to help your cast out and be creative with how you frame songs and sequences. All too often Shankman butchers numbers by being inanely literal even in the face of songs not making a whole deal of sense within the context of the movie. “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” is but one example of this insane mix. Somehow “Any Way You Want It” becomes a feminist anthem as Sherrie makes the difficult, somewhat sad decision to start stripping at Mary J. Blige's club (they all remain fully clothed by the way), while “I Want to Know What Love Is” is used as the excuse for Cruise and Malin Akerman's Rolling Stone reporter to get it on in a jokey sex scene. Get it?! They're having sex backstage, but they really want to know what love is! Add in a barrage of overwrought montages, clumsy cutting during mashups and overpowering orchestration and you lose a lot of whatever joy and boundless energy that the original jukebox theater show may have had.
Not everything is awful. A couple numbers reach the level of fun and liveliness necessary to be entertaining, particularly Cruise's “Pour Some Sugar On Me” as well as a couple other decent songs like “Paradise City” and “Rock You Like A Hurricane.” To be honest, that's not a total coincidence because the best parts of Rock of Ages almost invariably involve Tom Cruise as Axl-Rose-stand-in Stacee Jaxx. Nobody totally escapes the ridiculous awfulness of Rock of Ages save Cruise, who actually manages to deliver the kind of weird, funny, enigmatic and electric performance that this movie needed a whole hell of a lot more of. He's first introduced awaking from under a pile of naked groupies, has a bejeweled codpiece with tattoos of six-shooters pointing at his groin, grabs three pairs of breasts in the movie and brings a monkey named “Hey Man” along with him wherever he goes. I desperately wanted more Tom Cruise in this movie, to the point that I was recasting and redeveloping this movie in my mind as it went along to try and come up with a film that almost exclusively focused on Jaxx.
That's not the easiest thing for me to admit, since I haven't thought much of Cruise in the past 20 years or so. But it is undeniable; Cruise is a big f'n movie star and as Alonso Duralde of The Wrap stated, he is “probably one of the few people on earth who can imagine first-hand what it was like to be Axl Rose in 1987.” Cruise's performance is so good, it's probably too good for this particular movie. The rest of Rock of Ages is bright, colorful, loud and like stepping into someone's candy-coated dream of what 1987 LA might be like. Cruise actually brings screen presence and a character who actually feels like a big-time rock star. In a PG-13 rock musical that acts like Glee versions of songs by Journey, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon were ever controversial, Jaxx is the only figure who feels like he might bring even just a bit of mayhem to the proceedings. He doesn't of course, but just making us think he might is something of an accomplishment in this mostly saccharine-sweet movie.
Apart from Cruise, Malin Akerman and Paul Giamatti are good in their supporting roles, although Akerman is given sort of a thankless sexpot “journalist” character forced to wear hot-for-teacher glasses and attempting to scold Jaxx while simultaneously trying to have sex with him. Hey, not once have I ever said any of this makes sense. Alec Baldwin is actually decent when he's not trying to sing, but again, he's forced into a gross subplot whose sole existence is to point and laugh at all the gay. The real problem with the cast are the leads. To be honest, Julianne Hough and particularly Diego Boneta are death, lacking the big-screen presence necessary to keep us remotely interested or caring for their intentionally clichéd characters. I don't even know where to start with Catherine Zeta-Jones as the overly-caffeninated Mayor's wife (based on Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center) and it's really hard to get over the idea that songs from Journey and Twisted Sister and Def Leppard are worth going after, even though it was really Rap and Heavy Metal that were the real “controversial” music of the times.
Ultimately, Rock of Ages is a flummoxing spectacle of empty, but very shiny, musical numbers which would make even the kids on Glee roll their eyes. I can't imagine real hardcore fans of some of the bands included loving how their childhood music is used and butchered in a blatant Hollywood attempt at whitewashing what was a more exciting, dirtier, sexier, more dangerous time and place. Shankman and company have brought together a weird mix of actors, singers, dancers and pop icons and thrown them together to try and replicate what was a tongue-in-cheek “good time” on stage. Somewhere along the way Rock of Ages lost its tongue-in-cheek way and went for the standard Hollywood script that quite frankly doesn't make sense here. Yes, it's easy to take shots at boy bands such as The Z-Boyeezz (“two E’s, two Z’s and double the flava”), but coming from a film filled to the brim with hair-metal bands and groups who have sold out to such a degree that I heard one song from this film in a State Farm Insurance commercial as I sat here writing this up, it all comes across as far too tone-deaf for its own good. I love musicals, but I want intelligent, heartfelt, interesting films with quality numbers and talented performers. I don't need a film that thinks a rousing climax of “Don't Stop Belivin'” is the true spirit of rock-and-roll. Plus, it was better on Glee. In fact, most of the numbers on Rock of Ages were better on Glee and that should say something.
As something of a post-script, the weirdest musical exclusions? They don't do Journey's “Oh Sherrie” (they only play a 3-second tease). And no, they don't use Def Leppard's “Rock of Ages” either. Then again, it sort of fits with the rest of Rock of Ages…in that it doesn't make much sense. While we here at 411mania would never expressly condone or suggest being under the influence of something, I'm not not saying that it wouldn't help as you watch Rock of Ages. Some will definitely love it, but I think most will simply be dumbstruck at its sheer, audacious awfulness mixed with boundless fakery. It is quite something to say the least.
The 411: Rock of Ages is something to behold, full of bloated Glee-inspired musical numbers, PG-13 sex and an unimaginable degree of emptiness. Unless you are a die-hard fan of 1980's hair metal/pop music, the only real reason to see the film is Tom Cruise's inspired performance as Stacee Jaxx (patterned after Axl Rose), which is funny, enigmatic and adds a touch of legit rock danger to what is otherwise candy-coated nonsense. Leads Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are terrible and pale in comparison to Cruise. If you hate musicals, there's is nothing Rock of Ages can offer that will appeal to you. What was a tongue-in-cheek Broadway jukebox musical has been turned into a rather boring, clichéd Hollywood story that doesn't have nearly enough fun with its musical numbers or with its own premise. However, while fans of this music might have a blast, (sober) musical fans will likely have to wait for Les Misérables to come out later this year in order to really enjoy a big movie musical. Not Recommended.