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“I wanna rock!” exclaimed Twisted Sister in its famous 1984 song. It’s safe to assume most men and women attending Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages would feel the same way.
Well, hopefully they don’t mind Glee-style bastardizations of their beloved rock anthems because that’s Rock of Ages‘ modus operandi. Its numbers are impressively staged, and some of the performers have decent enough voices, but they aren’t rock performances—not by a long shot.
The film itself is a pleasant enough diversion. The cheese factor is ratcheted up to the max, meaning it’s probably best taken in under the influence of moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol. Hell, Tom Cruise’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, drunk or not. But the music—what should be this film’s bread and butter—is where it comes up short. Shankman managed to pull of the stage-to-screen transition with Hairspray a few years ago. Rock of Ages, on the other hand, comes up short.
Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is just a small town girl. In 1987, she moves to the lonely world that is Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of becoming a famous singer. To pay the bills, however, she takes a job waiting tables at the Strip’s famous Bourbon Room, where many of rock’s gods and goddesses, including the incomparable Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), kicked off their careers.
Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), meanwhile, just wants to rock. Forget tending bar at the Bourbon Room for the club’s owner, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin); Drew knows his destiny is behind the mic. When he meets Sherrie for the first time, it seems he’s found the one person who can help him achieve his dreams, but he might never get the chance to perform on the famous Bourbon Room stage. Dennis’ tax troubles are mounting, and a group of right-wing fanatics—led by Los Angeles’ first lady, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones)—will stop at nothing to shut the place down.
Clearly, Rock of Ages‘ story is paper thin and relies on countless clichés and contrivances to shoehorn in as many famous ’80s tunes as possible. And by including so many songs, many of which only get a verse and a chorus, none really stands out. That said, Rock of Ages is a very self-aware picture (think The Muppets) with lots of jokes at the expense of its own structure and our expectations.
Cruise is the film’s saving grace (assuming it needs one). He gives an inspired performance as a total scoundrel of a rock star with an affinity for liquor and licking (women, that is). He has a very unusual gait, and his sense of humor is the kind that makes everyone around him feel uncomfortable (at times, even unsafe). The guy even has a decent voice, and he overcomes the limitations of the role, which are many. Jaxx’s arc is limited, and he does sometimes slow the film’s momentum quite a bit. But Cruise goes for it with real gusto, and he should be commended for making the character fun.
The film’s two leads, on the other hand, give below-average performances at best. Hough, as adorable as she is, can’t really sing, and it seems she attended the Jessica Alba School of Stripping. Boneta, meanwhile, can sing, but he leaves a great deal to be desired on the acting front, bringing next to no charisma to the vital leading man role.
You could do a lot worse than Rock of Ages as far as disposable summer fun goes (it did open opposite Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy, after all), but Shankman’s film is nowhere near as enjoyable and absorbing as it should be, as his need for big stars sadly trumped the seemingly common sense idea to cast singers with soul. Of course, his big casting coup turned out to be one of the film’s more successful elements, so perhaps it was just the misfires Hough and Boneta that brought the film down. Whatever the case, Rock of Ages, despite the glitz, glamour, and big hair, is just another flawed attempt at making excess entertaining.