When it debuted on Broadway in 2009, the stage musical Rock of Ages lured metalheads to the theater with a neatly bombastic package of nostalgia for 1980s hair metal music. Now the movie version hits screens peddling the same thing, only it has a star-spangled (not to mention spangle-spangled) cast, which proves to be a better selling point for this lumpy and overlong musical.
Considerably revamped from the stage musical, the story begins with fresh-faced Oklahoma girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) coming to Hollywood in 1987 to become a singer, where she falls for fellow aspiring rocker Drew (Diego Boneta). Their love story plays out at The Bourbon Room, a scuzzy, legendary rock club and bar where they work. The place is in financial trouble, and its salvation depends on a concert by notoriously fickle rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).
The story is spread too thin, with cliché-ridden subplots and characters battling for screen time and a message that amounts to little more than the words “Rock N Roll 4 Ever” scrawled on some bathroom wall. The movie not only fails as drama, it doesn’t offer much in the way of dance. Director Adam Shankman doubles as choreographer, as he did on his better previous movie, Hairspray. His contributions are muted by the songs, which don’t lend themselves to Broadway-style dance. The breathtakingly difficult stripper-pole moves on “Any Way You Want It” feel disconnected from the music. A similar fate befalls “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” even though Catherine Zeta-Jones (as the mayor’s anti-rock crusading wife, backed by a chorus of Christian housewives) sings the hell out of the song.
She’s part of an unexpectedly strong cast of singers. The angelic-looking newcomer Boneta is a find, blowing out the speakers on “I Wanna Rock” but also dialing himself back for a lovely rendition of “Waiting for a Girl like You.” Funnier stuff comes from Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand (as The Bourbon Room’s owner and manager, respectively), who transform “Can’t Fight this Feeling” into a goofy gay love duet. The weak link is, sadly, Hough, whose soprano is too small and thin for “More than Words,” never mind “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
And then there’s Tom Cruise. The only time this movie ignites — and it stays lit for a good stretch — is when his Stacee finally shows up midway through. On stage, the character is usually played as a fat-Elvis type of burnout case, but Cruise plays him as an Iggy Pop-style ripped diva who uses his fame as a license to indulge in lunatic behavior, including traveling with a cutely dressed but vicious baboon sidekick named Hey Man. Cruise’s vocal production is eccentric (his voice seems to be coming from somewhere in his nasal cavity), but he has more than enough power to fill out the notes, and he looks every bit the rock star in “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Taking pregnant pauses and investing Stacee’s nonsensical ramblings with profound pseudomeaning, Cruise is the perfect actor at this point to play a magnetic artist who has gone up his own ass. He makes Stacee into a sad self-parody who can still bring a crowd to its feet, and when he’s on screen, you can’t look anywhere else.
Rock of Ages
Starring Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, and Tom Cruise. Directed by Adam Shankman. Written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb, based on D’Arienzo’s musical. Rated PG-13.