“Actually, I told him the gig was last night. So he’s a day late.”
Listening to Night Ranger‘s “Sister Christian” sung by a bus full of strangers a la Almost Famous was a pretty good way to start Rock of Ages, the big screen adaptation of the Tony Award nominated musical. Julianne Hough‘s ‘Sherrie’ Christian’s blandly starry-eyed wonder was acceptable; Hollywood circa 1987 took shape via hookers, muggers, and over-zealous cops; and the hyper-real Broadway sensibilities came out as extras broke into song and dance while a sweaty, sex-infused rock show began inside The Bourbon’s legendary bar. Ideas of a rollicking good time are planted, the spirit of the ’80s is put on full display, and everyone seems to be having a great time hamming it up for the camera as girl unsurprisingly meets boy inside the chaos.
But, just as I readied to stand and shout along to the chorus’ crescendo of Foreigner‘s “Jukebox Hero”—Bam! Joan Jett and the Blackhearts‘ “I Love Rock and Roll” mashes in like a sledgehammer to show how cute (read contrived and obvious) the writers thought they’d be in their lifting of hits to serve as dialogue. Unlike the splendor of Moulin Rouge! assaulting your senses with an infusion of pop songs to ease your entry inside, Chris D’Arienzo uses the decade’s anthemic sound to project the era’s disenfranchised view of love in the midst of sexual excess. Cheesy lyrics, however, make a cheesy movie and although Rock of Ages appears to acknowledge its absurdly clichéd plot through some broad performances and raunchy comedy, it’s not enough to forgive its paper-thin construction.
Subplots about a mayor and his religious right wife add nothing besides two more farcical characters mocking a real-life protest of rock and roll’s hedonism while the teased hair love of our youthfully exuberant leads becomes tested by reality’s penchant for disappointment. It’s actually the gradual descent into a comedic hell where being in a boy band somehow becomes a deeper rock bottom than the stripper pole that entertains most through sheer silliness since we care little for the bratty, one-dimensional lovers seduced by the allure of fame. Not necessarily due to the acting—I actually think Diego Boneta plays wannabe rocker Drew Boley with a great mix of endearing humor, naivete, and anger-infused confidence—it’s the hamfisted, stereotypical vapidness of the lyrics used as story that simply cannot be taken seriously.
I’ve never seen the stage performance, but doing a little reading alludes to it being much more watchable. While Alec Baldwin‘s Dennis Dupree and Russell Brand‘s Lonny play with tongue firmly in cheek, the rest appear to forget how over-the-top this show is. The theatrical show supposedly breaks the fourth wall often and has no problem telling the audience they are conscious to the fact they’re acting. Now that is a brilliant maneuver to cut through the pop-infused slogans about looking for “nothing but a good time” and it’s removed. This is rock and roll—we all know the fantasy mixed with nightmare its form of fame and fortune delivers. Play it for jokes, know how laughable your premise is, and have fun. Don’t pretend there’s some pithy morality tale about following your dreams—we’re here for the music.
At least I was. Despite my age not leaving single digits by the end of the decade, I love these songs. Def Leppard is on my iPod, I’ve attended an arena show with the triple bill of REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Journey, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Watching the music come to life in the form of a huge, sprawling music video is a cool concept that can’t help but flood fans with a wave of nostalgia. That aside, you can’t forget the flimsy platform it’s constructed upon. I guess on the flip side too, I shouldn’t be taking its want for a love story so seriously either. Maybe my biggest problem with the whole thing is that the campy parts work; I just wish Adam Shankman kept it going for the duration rather than moving into ironic drama non-ironically.
Uneven throughout, we go from broad performances by Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Malin Akerman—who perhaps takes it too far—into Hough’s overwrought troubles as a grossly inconsistent tone is created. Rather than be a part of some grand, self-aware satire about the age of excess, Baldwin and Brand’s brilliant rapport merely becomes comic relief as their computer-fabricated singing voice force you to laugh. Mary J. Blige, the only real singer I cared about, (Should I know Hough is a country singer?), ends up drowning in a role that calls the pole a woman’s only venue for power before admitting it sucks all hope at happiness away with only a five second mention of an abusive ex-boyfriend to motivate the change. I often wondered whether the original cast’s anonymity could have helped by removing the baggage of stardom.
In the end, the transplanted youths looking for more in Hollywood only serve as pawns to introduce aging Arsenal frontman Stacee Jaxx into the fold. The film’s lynchpin—Boneta’s idol, Hough’s first crush, Baldwin’s bar’s savior, and Zeta-Jones’ subject for a malicious usurping of religion for vindictive evil—it’s his self-destructive search for the perfect song that eventually brings everything full circle. Armed with mammoth bodyguards, an out-of-touch agent (Paul Giamatti doing sleaze as only he can), and a baboon named Hey Man, Jaxx embodies what I wished the film would be. Possessing a Steven Tyler infused Axl Rose persona on stage and an esoterically tempestuous physicality off it, Tom Cruise is the epitome of rockstar and Rock of Ages‘ unchallenged highlight. Stacee Jaxx doubles the ‘e’, doubles the ‘x’, and doubles the ‘flava’ to carry you through, but sadly no one else follows his lead.
 TOM CRUISE as Stacee Jaxx in New Line Cinema’s rock musical “ROCK OF AGES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by David James
 (L-r) ALEC BALDWIN as Dennis Dupree and RUSSELL BRAND as Lonny in New Line Cinema’s rock musical “ROCK OF AGES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by David James
 (L-r) JULIANNE HOUGH as Sherrie Christian and DIEGO BONETA as Drew Boley in New Line Cinema’s rock musical “ROCK OF AGES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by David James