“ROCK of Ages,” adapted from Chris D’Arienzo’s book and Broadway musical of the same name, takes you back to the ‘80s, when rock and roll was big and hair was bigger. Despite the fact that it packed its 123 minutes of runtime with an army of problems, it has enough redeeming qualities to fit the bill of a guilty pleasure. I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed it from start to finish.
It’s 1987 and Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) leaves her small town life for Los Angeles to chase her dream of becoming a rock star. Still starry-eyed and fresh off the bus from Oklahoma, she’s met with an unfortunate but not at all novel turn of events that put her dreams on hold. The helplessly charming Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a fellow rock star hopeful, comes to her aid and helps her land a job at the famous Bourbon Room, where he works as a bartender.
Despite being an iconic music hall, the Bourbon Room, run by aging rock-enthusiasts Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and Lonny (Russell Brand), is on its last legs. On the brink of financial ruin and the target of constant heat from the mayor’s wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the club looks to the infamously unreliable rock and roll god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) for salvation.
Predictably, the gig does not go as planned. It does, however, thrust the characters into a series of challenging situations that only their love for rock and roll will get them through.
All in all, it’s a remarkably lazy plotline. It’s overrun by campy clichés and its twists, if they can even be called that, are simplistic and predictable. Anyone hoping to see a powerfully honest commentary on rock and roll life in the 80s is in for a big disappointment.
If you were to watch the movie with no knowledge of its origin, you’d never guess that it was adapted from Broadway. The sets are lifeless and stagnant, and the choreography often noncommittal. When Catherine Zeta-Jones, no stranger to musicals, performs “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” she and her cronies are confined to a tiny chapel. Their movements were stiff and unintentionally amusing, and there was no real attempt to fully put the set space to use.
With the exception of the Stacee Jaxx numbers, there was nothing extraordinary about the cinematography. There were too many pan-in, pan-out, and cheesy double-exposure moments and nowhere near enough imagination. The moment it’s Tom Cruise’s turn to take the stage, however, suddenly Shankman pulls himself together; these numbers have an energetic and inventive quality about them that are hardly present in any of the other songs.
There was also the problem of flow. All musical directors are issued the task of smoothing transitions between dialogue and song. Shankman didn’t seem up to this challenge though, resulting in a number of awkward post-song moments. Save for a few medleys, he also failed to build upon the music, perhaps afraid of tampering with their original magic. What the barrage of covers then seems to add up to is nostalgia devoid of a sense of romance.
With so many factors opposing the film, how then can anyone bear to watch it? As is the case with most of Shankman’s films, its driving force is it’s sheer cheesiness. Simply said, the way to enjoy “Rock of Ages” is to do anything but take it seriously.
For the most part, no case can be made in defense of the acting. Hough’s and Boneta’s performances are forgettable, and Baldwin continues to convince me that his “acting” just involves a lot of squinting and awkward hand gestures. But the cheap execution, coupled with the already flimsy plotline, seemed to be purposely tongue-in-cheek, which actually worked to the movie’s advantage. Of course, anyone who can’t find it in themselves to appreciate a good campy movie probably won’t think so.
On the other hand, Tom Cruise was—and it pains me to say it—fantastic in his performance as an eccentric, aging rock god. This fluke I chalk up to the fact his role here saves the audience from the challenge presented by most of his other movies: Being expected to take him seriously. His singing voice may not be breathtaking, but his portrayal of his drunken, slightly deranged character made this forgivable.
The ultimate factor in this film’s success as a guilty pleasure is, of course, the music. When you put their technical faults aside and appreciate them at face value, the song and dance numbers are—for lack of a better fitting word—fun. Even those who did not grow up during the 80s are bound to recognize the hits, even if, God forbid, only from Guitar Hero and episodes of Glee.
It was, in the strictest and most unforgiving sense, a technically bad movie. But while it’s far from fantastic, it is unabashedly fun. If you’ll let them, you may find that the cheesiest numbers, from “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to “More Than Words,” will have you grinning from their first few notes to their very last tacky transition, or at least keep you entertained enough to keep away worries of how Hollywood may be on the highway to hell.