Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Rock of Ages live on stage. I have no idea if its sprawling, loosely connected storylines intersect in a more satisfying way when played out before a live, active, participating audience. I don’t know if the theater, rather than the multiplex, represents a more comfortable and better-suited environment in which the particulars of musicals can thrive. So, in short, I don’t really know where primary authorship of Rock of Ages‘ film adaptation lies– it’s with either Chris D’Arienzo or Adam Shankman– but I do know a train wreck when I see one because, as that locomotive cliche dictates, I’m unable to look away.
That mesmerizing quality represents the movie’s saving grace; it might be a disaster, but damned if you won’t have a great time on this sinking ship anyhow. You’ll know whether or not you’re falling under Rock of Ages‘ spell a mere three minutes in, when a medley of Night Ranger and David Lee Roth music turns a bus full of strangers into a unified glam rock chorus. Maybe being led in song by someone as enthusiastically innocent as Julianne Hough is enough to turn anybody into a Broadway extra; she’s front and center here, and her presence tends to impel mass-musical expression more often than not. She’s joined by Diego Boneta, here striking out in his first major leading role; together, they embody two young people thrown together by chance, and who share the same dream of making it big in Hollywood as singers.
Of course, that dream means suffering, and so Rock of Ages puts her on a bus into town and him behind the bar of legendary decadence factory and rock ‘n roll nightclub the Bourbon Room. And of course, because there have to be two courses, the Bourbon Room has problems of its own; beleaguered owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man, Lonny (Russell Brand), are drowning in tax debt while the club itself is under fire from a crowd of moral crusaders headed by the aggressively sanctimonious Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The glue holding these disparate plot threads together? Rock god composite Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), the object of Patricia’s ire, Dennis’ ticket out of bankruptcy, and Drew’s (Boneta) idol.
If Rock of Ages sounds like a sprawl based on the synopsis alone, well, it is, from its narrative to its decade-and-change-spanning soundtrack. Two hours of hair metal and hard rock ballads can be punishing for even the most ardent of fans, so your mileage may vary relative to the refinement of your musical palette. Fortunately, the first scene of the film serves as a good stress test; if you’re on-board even in the face of such unabashed silliness as is put on display there, then you’re good to go for the film’s other hundred and twenty minutes. If not, well, feel free to nonchalantly mosey over to the door, or just stick around for Tom Cruise, who’s in sublime form here. He nearly justifies the existence of the film all on his own.
That’s because he’s not acting on any level of craft that I’ve experienced before. He’s not good. He’s not bad. He just is, which sounds like a descriptive cop-out except that what Cruise offers here defies easy description. He’s magnetically bizarre, walking a fine line between ham-handed caricature and dedicated, committed, genuine portrayal. Jaxx, whose persona lies somewhere in between Axel Rose and Bret Michaels, inhabits another plane of existence from everyone else around him, living life in a drug-fueled, sex-sustained haze of anti-reality; Cruise dives into each scene with abandon, lurching and sauntering from one moment to the next as he rasps dialogue about phoenixes while sucking down whiskey delivered to him by his trained pet baboon, Hey Man.
Trust me when I say it’s not as ruthlessly absurd as it sounds, but only because it’s even more absurd in actuality. Rock of Ages peaks in insanity with a rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is” sung between Cruise and Malin Akerman– it’s easily the film’s most ludicrous moment, and if the entire film maintained that level of unhinged insanity it might be worth recommending wholesale. But, regrettably, we get very little of that exquisite flavor of ridiculousness (though seeing Brand and Baldwin declare romantic love for one another comes very, very close); mostly, we’re forced into close quarters with Hough and Boneta, and while they’re both talented in their fashions (Hough can dance, Boneta can sing), they’re both too bland as protagonists to carry the bulk of the story on their shoulders. They’ve got back-up– Cruise, of course, as well as Baldwin and Brand, and a gloriously unctuous Paul Giamatti– but the support proves more interesting than the static leads.
That sums up Rock of Ages‘ biggest flaw rather succinctly. It’s one-note. It’s expected. And maybe there’s nothing truly egregious about giving people what they want, the way they want it (because that’s what they need, naturally), but it certainly doesn’t make for surprising, memorable filmmaking. Nothing about Rock of Ages, save for Cruise, can be called unpredictable; worse than that, every element of the film feels safe. A musical celebrating the better merits of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll,” mantra should contain some measure of subversion, but even when the Bourbon Room’s clientele protest their protestors in a third-act musical number, the proceedings feel reductive and sanitized.
Musicals face a weird existential tension in film in the first place; they comprise a minute percentage of our cinematic intake, and yet with rare exceptions they enjoy great prominence in collective consciousness by virtue of scale. Rock of Ages contends with that phenomenon while also juggling its unsullied sheen. Shankman, not known for his talent behind the camera, can’t even make brief shots of Boneta and Hough copulating feel titillating, though at least Jaxx’s introduction appropriately steeps in the leftovers of debauchery. But ultimately, Rock of Ages presents a very cleaned-up depiction of the rebellious rock spirit, even if manages to have a lot of fun in spite of itself; rock ‘n roll isn’t dead, it’s just antiquated and quaint.