Rock of Ages gave me goosebumps.
I know, right? How stupid is that? Why would a silly little musical with rock songs from the 80s produce goosebumps in anyone? It happened more than once, too. At first, I tried to rationalize it by thinking “Well, it is a bit chilly in this theater, so it has to be because of that.” But the goosebumps returned, and only during some of the film’s many song numbers. Cold air wouldn’t abide by such a pattern, so the goosebumps had to be genuine.
Maybe it’s not so strange, though. I do love the music this movie indulges in, though only really from looking at it in the rear-view mirror. I was born in the early 80s, but I didn’t start caring about music until the mid-90s. By that time, bands like Def Leppard, Journey, and Twisted Sister were long gone from the pop culture spotlight. My love for their music would grow later on. This fondness thus stems from retro rather than genuine nostalgia, I guess you could say. Through hindsight, only the good parts of the 80s hair metal culture has remained in the public consciousness for people like me to latch on to. I don’t much care about the nasty excess and shallowness of the era. I do care about the shallow things, though: the catchy songs and the colorful aesthetics.
This is a mindset that Rock of Ages deliberately taps into. Everything about this movie is glitzy and polished. The songs aren’t so much the best of the era as the Greatest Hits thereof. Most of the singing is clean and lacking in texture – due to the slight autotuning, no doubt. Oh, the movie toys with “darker” elements in its plot, but it’s of little substance. Rock of Ages is all about celebrating the shallow things.
Like all jukebox musicals, the story is built around the lyrics of the songs selected. The year is 1987. Small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. She meets Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rock musician who works at the fabled Bourbon Room club. She too gets a job there as a waitress, and the two fall in love. Then PROBLEMS and OBSTACLES arise, as they tend to do. Dennis (Alec Baldwin), the club’s owner, has trouble making ends meet. He hopes that big-time rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) will revitalize business with a planned gig there, but Stacee is notoriously unreliable. There’s also the right-wing wife-of-a-mayor Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose main goal in life is to rid the city of sinful rock & roll completely.
The story is, to put it bluntly, weak. Clichéed developments run rampant everywhere, and there’s little about the going-ons that could be described as compelling even if one was feeling charitable. It could be easy to describe this as an inherent problem of the subgenre, but that would be to take the easy way out. Others have dabbled with the format and at least shown better intentions, if not necessarily results. Mamma Mia may have been a dud of a movie, but at least it presented a clearly defined mystery (“Which of these tree men is Amanda Seyfried‘s daddy?”) as its hook. Or you could look at Beatles musical Across the Universe, which while following a familiar formula still presents its story in an emotionally effective way. Compared to both these films, the plot of Rock of Ages is thin air. We can reasonably guess how things are going to turn out, and even if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t care.
Luckily for Rock of Ages, musicals can succeed in spite of lazy storytelling as long as the song numbers are good. The ones in this film are certainly passable. Yeah, I could have done with more of a raw edge to some of them, and more esoteric song choices would have been welcome, but there is a lot of joy and energy to everything. Gleeful indulgence in rock music is something I always find thrilling, and a club full of people singing along to a performance can be a thing of beauty. Whether it’s Boneta detailing his rock star dreams through “Jukebox Hero”, a rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by two unlikely suspects, or any of Tom Cruise’s big stage performances, I found myself with a big smile on my face more than I’d have expected. Not everything is a hit, though. A recurring problem is songs being shortened and hobbled, and others being mashed together into medleys that don’t quite serve their purpose. Then there are some numbers that are just plain bad. Chief amongst them would be Zeta-Jones’ performance of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, complete with awkward kicking choreography that had me cringing.
But the big saving grace of the film is Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx. He has never played a character quite like this one. Stacee is a blend of any number of rock band lead singers; there’s definitely traces of Axl Rose, David Lee Roth and Jim Morrison in the mix. He’s a diva, self-indulgent, hooked on booze and sex to the point where they have ceased being pleasure. He’s weary of a life he has become addicted to, which manifests itself in amusing ways. In one scene he looks eyes with someone important from across the room and makes his way over for what’s sure to be a heart-felt conversation, only to be sidetracked by a random groupie whom he starts making out with. Stacee just looks at his important someone with a semi-apologetic glance. “Sorry, can’t help it. This is who I am. Stacee fucking Jaxx.” There are moments in the film where Cruise is downright mesmerizing, even when the actual events are so ballsy and preposterous to raise many an eyebrow (watch out when “I Want To Know What Love Is” starts playing.) Guy Lodge at In Contention has written a great piece on this performance, and he articulates things much better than I could hope to. I’ll just note that this might well be my favorite performance of the year so far, and probably Cruise’s best work since Magnolia, or at least Collateral.
Compared to him, however, all the other actors fade entirely. Young leads Hough and Boneta are good singers, but they lack chemistry for their required romance. I don’t foresee this film launching either’s career onto the next level. The rest of the cast are filled with familiar names, but with so many actors, there’s not enough room for any to shine. That they all play thin clichées doesn’t helpt either. Other than those already mentioned, we also find Paul Giamatti as Slimy Manager, Mary J. Blige as Kind-Hearted Strip Club Owner, Malin Åkerman as Introspection-Inducing Reporter, and Russel Brand as… well, as Russel Brand, really. Seeing these names and characters, you can probably work out roughly what to expect of the performances. Other than Cruise, none of the actors in the film are likely to surprise you.
If I had to summarize Rock of Ages with one word, it would be “uneven”. There are passages of the film where the songs are really good, the comedy hits its marks, and the hum-drum plot is kept unobtrusive. Then there are other stretches where everything is just groan-inducing. There’s also some degree of filler here, which leads to a bloated running time of over 2 hours. Still, the overall impression I was left with at the end was a mildly positive one, though I fully recognize that this is not a film for everyone. If you despise musicals, Rock of Ages won’t change your mind. If you’re not a fan of 80s rock, there’s little reason to bother either as the main appeal of the film will be lost on you. Not even Tom Cruise’s amazing performance is enough to make this one a must-see. But if you’re like me and love musicals, are fascinated by Tom Cruise, and can’t get enough of Bon Jovi and Poison, you’re likely to find something to like here.