The title of Adam Shankman's new musical may be something of a misnomer if you were born in the 1970s and grew up with the thoroughly disreputable music of the subsequent decade — for the songs featured here aren't rock for the ages so much as the rock of our ages. The film opens in 1987, as the soundtrack explodes with ‘Paradise City', and a shiver ran up my spine. And that's what kept happening with every chartbuster belted out during the next couple of hours — at some point I began to feel as if I were plugged into a socket.
Rock Of Ages isn't a film you see for its plot or its performances. You see it to travel back in time to an era when music came in cassettes, and when pop and rock had coalesced to create a hybrid with the instant hummability of the former and the hard-banging vitality of the latter. Rock Of Ages is less a movie than a nostalgia concert tour, a guilt-free shrine to gimcrackery.
The story opens, as these stories always do, with a star-struck ingénue (Sherrie, played by Julianne Hough) leaving small-town Oklahoma for Hollywood. Alighting from the Greyhound, as these ingénues always do, she exults (in the immortal words of David Lee Roth), “This must be just like livin' in paradise.” Instantly, her suitcase is stolen. Luckily, she runs into Drew (Diego Boneta) — he's so smitten that he gets her a job at the nightclub he works at and, later, asks her out on a date. (The occasion calls for a song, and what better number could express his emotions than Foreigner's ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You'?)
Meanwhile, the Mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is on a mission to clean up the city by banning rock ‘n' roll — she seems to have been possessed by the spirit of John Lithgow in Footloose, that other curmudgeon from the 1980s who strove to outlaw music and dance. And first on her hit list is the aging rocker named Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).
Rock Of Ages weaves in and out of these storylines at will, entrusting all character development to the songs. And for a musical, the staging is shockingly flat, devoid of atmosphere. A bigger problem is that Shankman seems to think he's making a musical comedy — his staging veers incessantly towards shtick. When the Mayor's wife — in church, and with Stacee Jaxx's poster on the altar — issues a challenge to her nemesis through Pat Benatar's ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot,' her husband (Bryan Cranston) inside is being slapped on the bottom by his mistress. (He is, in other words, asking to be hit with her best shot.)
The most unforgivable coarsening of a musical montage may be the one where Baldwin and Russell Brand express their love for each other through ‘Can't Fight This Feeling'. The emotion in the REO Speedwagon song is undermined by the easy laughs Shankman reaches for. Someone should have told him that no less a talent than Noël Coward marvelled, in one of his plays, about the extraordinary potency of “cheap music”.
But the actors do their best to conquer this cheesy material. Cruise, especially, is astonishing in a scene where his tired, dissipated rocker is interviewed by a Rolling Stone journalist (Malin Åkerman) who asks him what it's like to be the real Stacee Jaxx — his fuzzy, weirded-out reaction suggests that he's been asked what it's like to be the real Tom Cruise.
It's one of those rare moments in the movies where you're not sure where the character ends and where the actor begins. By way of a reply, he launches into Bon Jovi's ‘Wanted Dead or Alive' — he sings the song as if it were a soul-lacerating confession. The actors do what Shankman won't. They treat the music seriously, as seriously as we did all those years ago. They manufacture a bit of truth from the bumper-sticker philosophy in the Journey anthem that closes the film: ‘Don't Stop Believin'.'
Rock of Ages
Director: Adam Shankman
Cast: Julianne Hough, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise
Storyline: A love story and a hate story fuelled by 1980s hits
Bottomline: The songs and the stars save the day