Singing to the jukebox from hell

Anyone who attended a rock concert or club show in the 1980s may view Rock of Ages as more documentary than parody.

Rock of Ages

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Rated: PG

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Erika Fetterly, owner of EFP Studios, recently launched the Let Them Have A Voice campaign. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta photographer’s campaign aims to give youths a voice

An Innisfail photographer is giving a platform to young central Albertans so… Continue reading

Chopped Canada-winning chef Pete Sok is trying to focus on the future as he reopens Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge in the Holiday Inn on Gasoline Alley during the pandemic. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer’s celebrity chef looks past the pandemic with new restaurant opportunity

Pete Sok is reopening Boulevard Restaurant — and betting on the future

The Red Deer Rebels hosted the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first game of the shortened 2020-21 season on Friday. The two teams faced off again in Medicine Hat Saturday (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Red Deer Rebels fall to Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday

Tigers 7 Rebels 2 The Red Deer Rebels have lost two straight… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Premier slams vandalism after slur painted on MLA’s office window

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is condemning alleged vandalism at the… Continue reading

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Machin waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Finance on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Executives who engage in so-called "vaccine tourism" show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine tourism is both unethical and bad for business, experts say

Executives who engage in so-called “vaccine tourism” show both an ethical disregard… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) battle in front as goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes the save during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, February 27, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
No Matthews, no problem: Minus NHL goal leader, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 4-0

Leafs 4 Oilers 0 EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs knew even with… Continue reading

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Gummed-up bills in House of Commons: harbinger of a federal election?

OTTAWA — All federal party leaders maintain they don’t want an election… Continue reading

The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Pornhub policies reveal legal gaps and lack of enforcement around exploitive videos

OTTAWA — Serena Fleites was in seventh grade when a sexually explicit… Continue reading

Sean Hoskin stands on a neighbourhood street in Halifax on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Hoskin was diagnosed with COVID-19 almost a year ago with symptoms that still persist. Some provinces have established programs to deal with long-term sufferers but Atlantic Canada, with relatively low numbers of patients, has yet to provide a resource to assist them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
On East Coast, exhausted COVID-19 ‘long haulers’ hope specialized clinics will emerge

HALIFAX — On evenings when Sean Hoskin collapses into bed, heart pounding… Continue reading

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

Most Read