Onstage, the ABBA love letter Mamma Mia! made the jukebox-musical trick look easy and enjoyable. On screen, less enjoyment, more strain—but people love their ABBA, their Meryl Streep and their Greek islands. And the movie did the trick for those who never miss a Pierce Brosnan musical.
We have the popularity of Mamma Mia! to thank for a much thinner jukebox goof, the tribute to ’80s glam, hair, metal and krrrrranggg! known as Rock of Ages. A few days after seeing a screening, I was driving by a billboard for the movie, and I thought, well, who knows? That might be fun. Then I realized I’d already seen it. And forgotten it.
This painless but oddly indistinct screen version of the stage show, built around two dozen songs made famous by Jon Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Poison and others, has most of its novelty wrapped up in the casting of Tom Cruise as a Dionysian rock god. Cruise makes his first appearance in buttock-liberating chaps and clothing that looks as if it came from a particularly pampered yak.
The year is 1987; the place is the Bourbon Room on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, whose legendary acts and debaucheries have drawn the ire of the mayor’s wife and her clean-it-up! minions. (Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the force of righteousness, who hammers the Pat Benatar standard “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”)
With the club’s future threatened, all is riding on Stacee Jaxx (Cruise) and his drawing power. While the club owner (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man (Russell Brand) fret, young love blooms between an aspiring singer and current waitress (Julianne Hough), just off the bus from a small town, and another aspiring rock artiste working at the club (Diego Boneta).
Soul-sick from a life of pliable groupies and too much eyeliner, Jaxx has consented to an interview with a reporter (Malin Akerman) who turns out to be The One. The numbers keep coming, Boneta’s character sells out by fronting a boy band, and while the script for Rock of Ages by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb is good for a few mildly salacious grins, there’s something off in the rhythm and the tone of director Adam Shankman’s picture.
Shankman had much better luck with Hairspray, a rock-solid stage property (based on John Waters’ screenplay) that easily withstood the transfer to the movies. Here, though, Shankman and company are working with tissue paper. And by steering the film away from headlong satiric energy, instead of toward it, the director errs in investing so much “heart” in a show that is only about its own clichés.
Cruise is certainly a sight, and to the degree he’s doing his own vocals (which I think he is), he’s impressive. Now: Is he right for the role? Is he funny? Not really, and not really. This may be the most enervating yet hyper-controlled portrait of a rock icon (fictional division) ever filmed. Cruise’s Jaxx is all attitude and no pacing; 20 minutes of this overlong jape could’ve been excised simply by cutting each of Cruise’s nonverbal windups or reaction shots in half.
I was ready for Rock of Ages. I wanted nothin’ but a good time. I was reasonably ready to rock. The movie, full of talented performers in search of a more propulsive vehicle, settles for workmanlike cover-band status, which makes this a cover-band tribute to a jukebox musical—a long way from true, trashy exhilaration.
Rock of Ages (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆