A film review by Craig J. Koban June 20, 2012

ROCK OF AGES jjj
½   

2012, PG-13, 124 mins.

 

Stacee Jaxx: Tom Cruise / Drew: Diego Boneta / Sherrie: Julianne Hough / Dennis Dupree: Alec Baldwin / Patricia: Catherine Zeta-Jones / Constance: Malin Akerman / Lonny: Russell Brand / Paul: Paul Giamatti / Justice: Mary J. Blige

Directed by Adam Shankman / Written by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo.

ROCK OF AGES scores absolutely zero points for being a pioneering silver screen musical.  But it most certainly does something that so many recent films haven’t: it made me smile…a lot…all through its running time. 

That its central storyline and themes are fairly prosaic seems almost inevitable, but where ROCK OF AGES really shines is in its boundless and exuberant energy, its undeniable sense of lewd good fun, and the sheer delight it has with skewering and honoring the big haired, neon-toned, and cheerfully tacky excessiveness of 1980’s rock.  It features a relatively who’s who of period specific songs from the likes of Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Journey, Poison, Whitesnake, Twisted Sister, REO Speedwagon…and…I’m sorry if I forgot anyone.  Fans of those groups will be in a head-banging state of nirvana and others will most likely be having just as much of a toe tapping and fist pumping good time.  There is very little not to like in ROCK OF AGES. 

This big, broad, zesty, and intentionally over-the-top film is based on the rock/jukebox musical of the same name by Chris D’Arienzo, which was a smash when it appeared in Los Angeles in 2005 before moving on to Broadway.  The musical – and film adaptation – is based ostensibly around the public’s fondness for classic rock and glam metal bands of the 80’s and the cultural era’s overall sense of reckless and promiscuous abandon.  I have heard some argue that ROCK OF AGES is too wall-to-wall with songs, but the whole point of the film is to bathe in the excesses of the synthesized music blasting at full ear-splitting volume levels and to wallow in its spunky vitality.  The film is arguably at its weakest when its stars are not belting out covers of long cherished rock hits, so the more they are the better. 

The plot of the film is pure cornball through and through, but it’s affectionately and digestibly corny.  It’s 1987 and a fresh-faced and wide-eyed wanna-be singer and pop star Sherrie Christian (the unbelievably easy-on-the eyes Julianne Hough from the recent FOOTLOOSE remake) has just arrived in town to make her proverbial dreams come true.  All she has is a few bucks, a small record collection of her favorites, and a dream.  Her aspirations of stardom are dashed rather quickly when she is mugged minutes after getting off her bus, but she has a meet-cute soon in its aftermath with Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a down on his luck busboy that also dreams of being a rock legend. 

Drew just happens to work at the Sunest Strip’s legendary Bourbon Room, a club that has spent its existence launching the career of rock icons.  It's run and managed by Dennis Dupree (a delightfully screwball Alec Baldwin) alongside his loyal right hand man, Lonny Barnett (the spirited and droll Russell Brand).  Since Sherrie is borderline penniless, Drew convinces Dennis to take her on as a waitress in order for her to begin her stay in California on the right note with a job and a hope for the future.  This also allows for Sherrie and Drew to get closer to one another; she shares with him her yearnings to be a star and he, in turn, confides in her his wishes to launch his rock band, Wolfgang Von Colt, but only if her can get over his stage fright. 

 

 

Meanwhile, Dennis and the Bourbon are in trouble.  The club is facing ample financial pressure from the IRS over an escalating unpaid tax debt, which Dennis hopes will be paid off with the profits he’ll make from a visit and performance by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a world famous rock god that has just recently announced his split from the group Arsenal.  Along with his manager (Paul Giamatti), Jaxx has agreed to perform with Arsenol for one last time at the Bourbon.  This peaks the interest of Patricia Whitmore (a deliriously zany Catherine Zeta Jones), an ultra conservative religious nutbar who is working in conjunction with her mayor husband (Bryan Cranston) to forever rid the valley of the sinful extremes of rock.  Predictably, complications ensue for all parties. 

ROCK OF AGES has been garnering considerable press for the casting of Tom Cruise as the jaded, narcissistic, alcoholic, groupie-obsessed, devil and monkey loving, and disbelievingly crazed rock legend that is Jaxx.  Cruise has been going under some career rejuvenation as of late; his hilariously inspired turn in TROPIC THUNDER as the unbilled Hollywood mogul that didn’t use a four or twelve letting expletive that he never loved was the uproarious comic performance of 2008.  Justin Theroux co-wrote that film and also co-wrote ROCK OF AGES, which gives Cruise yet another opportunity to absurdly overplay a farcical character while, at the same time, giving the audience a sly wink that (a) he’s a rousing good sport in on the gag and (b) he’s not too full of himself to have fun with mocking his very image as a mega celebrity. 

His Jaxx is a real piece of work; think of him as the love child of Axel Rose and Jim Morrison and you’ll get the idea.  Adorned in buttless leather chaps, greasy hair, a hauntingly glazed expression, tattoos of two pistols on his abs that strategically point to his other – ahem – gun, and a gemstone-encrusted cod piece that features Satan himself, Jaxx is the proverbial inebriated and socially reckless rock star that throws caution to the wind, mostly because he has no idea where he’s throwing it.  Cruise turns 50 very soon, which usually typifies a period when veteran actors tend to wind down; his intensely focused comic turn as Jaxx proves that he has not even begun to pull out all of the tricks from his thespian playbook. 

But…can Cruise sing?  The answer is a resounding yes.  He has a more than adequate vocal range when he blares out a haunting rendition of "Wanted Dead or Alive" and even has more perverse fun later in the film where he seduces book-wormy Rolling Stones reporter named – ahem – Constance Sack (the alluring Malin Akerman) by tapping into her inner sex kitten.  Ackerman and Cruise are a free-wheeling, uninhibited, and erotically charged hoot doing a duet of "I Want To Know What Love Is" by serenading their respective scantily clad body parts.  I defy anyone to name one other film where Cruise has sung directly to a woman’s bent-over derrière.  

The film is wall-to-wall with other memorably vivacious numbers.  I especially liked the borderline animalistic take of Pat Benatar’s "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" that Zeta-Jones’ Whitmore – along with a legion of concerned Christian mothers – lets loose (Benatar's lyrics have never come off as so…oddly sultry).  Zeta-Jones also leads an impulsively wild version of Twisted Sister’s "We’re Not Gonna Take It" while protesting in front of the Bourbon, during which Lonny and his fellow headbangers – at the same time - respond with "We Built This City".   Julianne Hough – as she has demonstrated with FOOTLOOSE – has a face that I could stare at for hours upon hours and has some nice, easy-going, and low-key chemistry with Boneta while they team up on some classic songs.  Hell, even Baldwin and Brand get their own moment in the spotlight when they partake in perhaps the most memorable version of "Cant Fight This Feeling" like…ever.  Trust me. 

ROCK OF AGES was directed by former dancer/choreographer turned director Adam Shankman, who previously helmed the terrific screen adaptation of HAIRSPRAY, one of the truly best of the recent movie musicals.  He understands how to tap into all of ROCK OF AGES off-the-wall, gaudy, and period-specific brazenness (I like the gags involving Giamatti’s agent requiring a .357 magnum sized holster for his brick-sized cell phone or the manner he forces Drew to later debase himself and re-tool his image as a boy band ring leader for the sake of idiotic studio execs).  Nothing in Shankman’s film comes off with any serious novelty (the story of the young lovers torn apart and brought back together via their mutual love of music and the power of their career dreams is relentlessly predictable), but it doesn’t really matter.  ROCK OF AGES is a nostalgic blast of giddy effervescence that heartily entertains.  Once you allow yourself to submerge yourself within the film’s infectious and campy silliness, it’s really hard to let go...and remove the smile off your face, of course. 

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