Written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb;
directed by Adam Shankman
Warner Bros. Rated PG-13
By Ed Symkus
Confession time. I worked in record shops from the late-1970s through the mid-1980s. The music of the day was playing over the store speakers from opening to closing. Believe me, I know my Foreigner and Journey and REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar and Bon Jovi. I like some of it … a lot. Some of it I find unlistenable, and did from the get-go.
More about my own tastes: I’m not a big fan of musicals –you know, those stage productions and movies where people will be talking normally, then burst into song, sometimes causing everyone around them to join in. Neither do I go out of my way to catch yet another boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl story.
So you might find it odd for me to confess that a week after seeing the film adaptation of the play Rock of Ages — a boy meets girl story in which someone on a bus from Oklahoma to L.A. bursts into song, as do the other passengers, and the driver, in the first two minutes – whenever I think about it, my right foot starts tapping to the beat of “Juke Box Hero,” and a smile spreads across my face
Despite plenty of dramatic clichés and a been there done that feeling, this is a movie that, through sheer exuberance, funny scenarios, and all kinds of surprises from its cast, grabs you and never stops providing you with a good time.
It’s about two young dreamers in 1987 L.A. Naïve, doe-eyed, jobless Sherrie (Julianne Hough) wants to be a singer. Hopeful, hard-working bar back Drew (Diego Boneta) wants to be up on the stage of the Bourbon Room (I guess they couldn’t use the name Whisky a Go-Go) with a guitar slung around his waist.
The film keeps those two at its center, and centers the action on the Sunset Strip, but there’s plenty of storytelling swirling around them with all of that guitar-driven music. There’s Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a narcissistic but long-in-the-tooth rock star who still makes women faint but isn’t quite the big name he once was. There’s the nearly broke club owner (Alec Baldwin, with a long gray wig) and his right hand man (Russell Brand), hoping a Stacee Jaxx gig will keep them from financial ruin. In place of the play’s real estate developer villains, there’s now the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), conspicuously made up to look like former presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, thumping her bible and leading conservative groups in protest against the “filth” of rock ’n’ roll.
Everyone sings in the film. Hough and Boneta already have credentials on their own albums. She does country down in Nashville. He’s a pop star in his native Mexico. The biggest surprise is Cruise, who not only delivers another in a string of recent solid performance (check out Tropic Thunder and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), he also reveals that he’s got some long-hidden vocal chops. Seriously, wait till you hear him belt out Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Even former pro wrestler Kevin Nash, as one of the Jaxx bodyguards, gets to sing one word. I think the only one without a vocal is the monkey, but that’s a whole other story.
The performances of the songs aren’t better than or even necessarily as good as the originals. That wasn’t the point here. It was to celebrate the songs, not top them – and to fit them in and around the dialogue to take the shape of a story.
While relative newcomers (to acting) Hough and Boneta come across as kind of vanilla, and they don’t display the electricity needed to make their budding relationship believable, Baldwin and Brand make up for it by stopping just short of finishing each other’s lines. They are hilarious together.
Cruise, putting everything he’s got into the part, including a lot of very effective whispering, gets one of the best introductory scenes ever, in a bedroom, emerging from under a pile of scantily clad female worshippers. Let’s hear it for rock ’n’ roll hedonism!
The question, of course, is whether people will go to see an oddball film like this. Rock musicals, from Across the Universe to Phantom of the Paradise and the truly weird and wonderfully awful The Apple, haven’t fared very well at the box office.
And at the start of Rock of Ages, the audience I was with did start laughing, a little derisively. But then they began to enjoy it, getting caught up in its delirious energy. So will this bring film musicals back to popularity? Not likely, but it sure is a pleasant, rockin’ diversion.