‘Rock of Ages’ a fun, if pointless, summer musical
“Rock of Ages,” a Broadway musical turned silver screen display of hectic headbanging and power chords, reveling in a time where rock ‘n’ roll was king, somehow pulls itself together and entertains, despite an insipid storyline and much-too-saccharin take on the music business.
“Rock of Ages,” directed by former dancer and choreographer Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”), is based on a musical that found its start in a Hollywood club in 2005 and soon enough made its way to Broadway. Like the musical, the movie is set in 1987, where our adorable leads, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) meet on the Sunset Strip early on. She’s from Oklahoma, seeking to make a name for herself, while he’s a barkeep at the fictional bar The Bourbon Room, placed next to the Whisky a Go Go, with big dreams of becoming the next rock god.
At the moment, though, that position is taken by Stacee Jaxx, played with a surprisingly sensual heat (and mostly half-naked) Tom Cruise. Jaxx is rock narcissism personified, and Cruise, as always, does his best when he’s at his worst. (Think Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder.”) His writhing body adds a real touch of lust in this otherwise banal scene of what’s supposed to be the debauched world of rock.
The movie’s plot, written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the original show) and Allan Loeb, diverges into two lanes: one focuses on the up-and-coming Sherrie and Drew, the other on the moral battle between Jaxx (and all of the Sunset Strip) and the crusading Patricia Whitmore, played by a wonderful Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Her version of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is infectious.) You see, Whitmore has pledged, in an effort to get her husband (Mike Cranston) elected mayor, to clean up the Strip, starting with The Bourbon Room and its supposed decadence and raunchiness. (Some research shows a similar battle happening, also in 1987, between Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife, and the music industry and pop culture in general after she bought a less-than-family-friendly Prince album, “Purple Rain,” for her daughter.)
Thanks in large part to the non-lead actors who grace the screen, including Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige and Paul Giamatti, along with a jukebox full of hits by Journey, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Foreigner and many more, “Rock of Ages” is enjoyable. Moviegoers watching the movie actually busted out in song during many of the movie’s numbers. And there’s some surprising comedy to be found, mostly with Baldwin’s Dennis Dupree, the owner of The Bourbon Room; Brand’s Lonny as Drew’s confidant; and Zeta-Jones’ Whitmore. Giamatti’s Paul Gill, Jaxx’s manager, represents the less-than-honorable side of Hollywood’s music scene, and he pulls it off with skill. And it’s always a treat to hear Mary J. Blige sing; here she plays Justice, a strip club owner.
But rock was never known for its humor, and the lack of anything rock, including the naughty behavior and excessive messages Tipper Gore fought against, results in a sterilized version of the Sunset Strip. It’s a bit disappointing, and the feeling is compounded by the many power-belting songs sung by the cast. You would never know bands other than Journey existed in the ’80s if “Rock of Ages” had its way. (All the songs are sung by the actors themselves, mostly without incident or distinction.)
In spite of itself, “Rock of Ages” evokes powerful feelings of nostalgia of a time when hair-metal music and power ballads reigned supreme, when rock ‘n’ roll was the answer to the youth’s battle against authority. But the sugar and sweetness exemplified by the two young leads counteract the heady feeling of rebellion and danger. But it’s that same sweetness that makes “Rock of Ages” watchable, if not a movie for the ages.
Three jukebox stars out of five.