Singing to the jukebox from hell
Rock of Ages
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Anyone who attended a rock concert or club show in the 1980s may view Rock of Ages as more documentary than parody.
Yes kids, there really was a time, just before the necessary corrective of grunge, when bands like Journey, Foreigner, Poison and Def Leppard were taken seriously.
It was a decade when conjugating the verb “to rock,” while dancing in leopard-skin pants and singing about smalltown girls livin’ in lonely worlds, was considered the height of cool, if not lyrical brilliance.
Which is why it’s hard to be too hard on what director Adam Shankman has done with this screen adaptation of Rock of Ages, the Broadway hit musical that proved no material is too vapid to be a Broadway hit musical.
He and his willing co-conspirators — including a cocky Tom Cruise, a castrating Catherine Zeta-Jones and a conniving Alec Baldwin and Paul Giamatti — gleefully go over the top together, trying to see who can out-camp the other in recreating rock’s most embarrassing era.
Don’t stop believin’ just how far they’re willing to send up and celebrate both themselves and the music. This mitigates the film’s long running time and the sweet nothings of the only characters in Rock of Ages who take the damn thing seriously: Julianne Hough’s power-ballad hopeful Sherrie and Diego Boneta’s pop-star wannabe Drew.
It’s 1987, and starry-eyed Sherrie arrives on the bus from Oklahoma to L.A.’s Sunset Strip, the Hollywood sign beaming at her back. She’s dressed like she should be auditioning for the musical Oklahoma!, not a Strip show, and an immediate ripoff threatens to dash her rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
She’s taken under the wing of the handsome Drew, a barback for the nearby Bourbon Room, who wants to know what love is. Drew persuades Bourbon Room owner Dennis (Baldwin) to give Sherrie a job as a barmaid, under the not-so-watchful eye of club manager Lonny (Russell Brand).
The Bourbon used to be the Strip’s hottest spot, but not any more. Dennis hopes to reignite sparks by landing the solo concert debut of Arsenal lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), a man who could give Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose (the obvious inspiration) lessons in debauchery.
But first Lonny has to deal with Jaxx’s scheming manager (Giamatti), an anti-rock civic do-gooder (Zeta-Jones) and a scoop-hungry Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman).
Sherrie has her own tribulations, requiring her to be taken under the wing of a rival club owner (Mary J. Blige), whose Venus Club looks like a strip joint, but isn’t allowed to be in a film cut for U.S. censors.
Few of the subplots go anywhere, especially the one involving Zeta-Jones, and they’re all set to the Jukebox from Hell, loaded with some of the worst tunes of the 1980s. Cringe along as people rawk out to Starship’s We Built This City, Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me, Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot and many more, plus one from the 1990s (Extreme’s More Than Words) that somehow travelled backwards in time.
As he demonstrated with the early 1960s homage Hairspray, Shankman is really only interested in how his films look, sound and feel, not whether they actually say anything. His mantra is the three Cs: colourful, cute and campy.
Cruise delivers on all three fronts, showing an intensity not seen since his Magnolia motivations as he struts the stage bare-chested, heavily tattooed and dragging along a scene-stealing baboon named “Hey Man.” It seems Cruise can sing, too, although not the four octaves Shankman claims, and likely not without the aid of Auto-Tune or other sonic assist (ditto for the rest of the cast).
Yet Cruise isn’t the main attraction of Rock of Ages. The spotlight rightly strays to the Messrs. Baldwin and Brand, whose bromantic relations are the comic highlight of a movie that is frequently funny, sometimes unintentionally so.
How can you hate a film that promotes its guitar-pick-thin story with the surprisingly honest advertising tagline, “Nothin’ But a Good Time”? Or that weirdly packs in such disparate cameos as pop diva Debbie Gibson and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach?
And do you doubt my claim that the 1980s were rock’s most embarrassing era?
If so, go to YouTube and watch Mick Jagger and David Bowie duetting to Dancing in the Street in 1985. For those about to rock, prepare to shudder instead.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.