by Richard von Busack
Rock of Ages (tickets and showtimes here) is based on the bridgiest-and-tunnelliest of Broadway musicals—like Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages is for a crowd that knows the music is cheese but doesn’t care. Rock of Ages boasts a refried song-set of some 300 moldy oldies of the late 1980s, songs already shilled beyond recognition by Extended Stay Hotel commercials and the Bill Clinton presidential campaign.
Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” aka “The Tony Soprano Death Dirge,” is at the top of this popular musical pyramid; the rock anthem fulfills the same function that Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” fulfilled in Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981): it’s supposed to be something pure, innocent and incandescent, to which all other kinds of music is leading. A pinnacle.
Considering the simplicity of the story, Rock of Ages is seriously overcooked. It’s riddled with subplots, devised by three credited scriptwriters. If you’ve seen Rock of Ages’ posters and tried to guess what it’s about, it should be clear how crowded it is.
Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin are the bookkeeper and owners of the Sunset Strip’s “Bourbon Club” (i.e. the by-then-irrelevant Whiskey-a-Go-Go). The club managers are plagued by back taxes, as well as a decency campaign organized by the newly elected mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his vengeful wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
To rescue the place, a legendary heavy metal performer named Stacey Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is doing a benefit show, despite the interference of his venal manager (Paul Giamatti). Meanwhile, a straightlaced but secretly hot Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Ackerman) tries to get the goods on Jaxx.
And there is a baboon.
Among all this chaos, it’s hard to work up some tenderness for film’s two innocent kids. One is the too-cute to-live Drew (Diego Boneta) the Bourbon Club’s bar-back, who longs to be a rock star. The other is Sherrie (Julianne Hough) “the small town girl livin’ in her lonely world,” who took the Greyhound in from Oklahoma, with hopes of being a singer. The romance is carried out complete with corny MGM musical level lover’s quarrel.
Both kids go wayward: boy to commercial sell-out, girl to work in the Venus Club as a stripper under the tutelage of the one really experienced professional singer in the movie, Mary J. Blige. When Blige takes up the refrain on a cover of Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart,” the film starts to look for a moment more like a musical, and less like a series of sewn together string of MTV videos.
The broad, stagey direction by former choreographer Adam Shankman doesn’t find any quiet spots or subtlety. And this was music from a particularly blatant, unironic era to begin with.
The tunes (such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”) are always as done as literally as possible. Comparing Rock of Ages to music videos is actually unfair. The best videos done during MTV’s reigning era often went across the grain of the songs. The visuals here don’t give these hits any fresh meaning.
Shankman’s technique here is to re-inflate what This is Spinal Tap deflated, and that’s particularly true in the fireworks loaded on-stage arena rock performances by Cruise and the imaginary band Arsenal.
Cruise gives what he hopes is a star’s performance through impersonating Brando in Apocalypse Now, Jaxx is based a bit on Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, though the cowboy-hatted look is a little closer to Axl Rhodes. Cruise does a lot of whispering, hiding behind sunglasses; he doesn’t twitch much when girls faint at his very entrance, and he leaves his big reaction shots to his pet baboon “Hey Man.” (If “Hey Man” is your idea of a funny name for a baboon, perhaps this movie is for you.)
One of the few moments when Rock of Ages stirs in its slumber is during Cruises’ the pantomime sex scene with Akerman. The round-faced Swedish actress with blank yet humid eyes sings, even while holding the laces to Jaxx’s leather pants in her teeth. But then Rock of Ages returns to the plight of the sad kids who get confused over their conflicting urges between fame and the need for love.
It’s even a little touching to see the Tower Records on Sunset rebuilt as a set. But the omni-sexual craziness implicit in the story makes way for Foreigner’s sticky, cringe-inducing “I Want To Know What Love Is.”
Rock of Ages is well titled: it takes whatever pleasant memories you had of that dumb pop and removes them. And then it makes you feel really old.