Truth In Advertising

“Rock Of Ages” is a soundtrack in search of a story, but it turns its utter disregard for narrative into its strongest ally. The film is based on an off-Broadway musical of the same name, in which the heroes are a pair of uncorrupted, aspiring, young rock stars and the villains are surly authority figures, twisting their metaphorical mustaches in an age old grab for money and power. In lieu of an interesting story to drive the proceedings, director Adam Shankman leans heavily on the musical’s never-ending barrage of 80s music, from Poison to Journey and back again.

The screenplay by Allan Loeb, Chris D’Arienzo, and the multi-talented Justin Theroux wisely rejects the pomposity and grandeur of hair metal – leaving that to the music – in favor of a love story on a small scale. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta star as Sherrie and Drew, the aforementioned wannabe rock stars that meet in a deteriorating rock club on the Sunset Strip, The Bourbon Room. The club is managed by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his friend, Lonny (Russell Brand), hoping to be bailed out financially by a concert featuring a world-renowned but aging rocker, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).

Cruise’s turn as an alcoholic and borderline delusional superstar is nothing if not inspired. The fiery desperation in his eyes is accented by the pity deserving of the character, and his performance forces the rest of the cast (including supporting roles by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Paul Giamatti) to bring their A-game when sharing the screen with him. Cruise is not playing a caricature of an addled 80s rock star. He is an addled 80s rock star. You’ll wonder anyone has ever has questioned his movie star status.

The darkest throughlines of the stage musical have apparently been jettisoned in favor of a more streamlined Hollywood romance, but the film is not without bite. Even though the stereotypical sleazebag antics of the 80s rock scene are in short supply, the cast lights up the screen in such a go-for-broke manner that the attitude of the era, in all its cheeseball glory, is preserved.

Yet, Malin Akerman, as a Rolling Stone reporter, is given almost nothing to do, and Mary J. Blige is only on hand to do what she knows how to do best – sing. These two, particularly, fail to register on any meaningful level and are all but wasted by Shankman and the writers. The headlining couple fails to progress at all, falling in love and then out of love thanks to a typical Hollywood misunderstanding. But through all of this, the film’s jubilance carries the day and helps the audience to see the film in its own context.

The musicians involved have taken a spit shine to the films’ collection of songs, but the picture rides the music’s endless wave of energy from start to finish, without fail. The lack of narrative allows “Rock Of Ages” to jump from one song to the next with just a minute or so of expository dialogue, while the lyrics, somewhat remarkably, tie everything together. Several of the musical numbers are stunning concoctions of pop music, production design, and editing, evoking an intense sense of momentum and movement. Some songs serve little purpose other than to showcase a supporting role, and might have been excised to cut down on the film’s excessive running time.

Cruise’s character certainly carries the lion’s share of emotional weight (of what little there is), but when Shankman defers, the reckless abandon of the entire cast and the nonstop force of the music are mostly there to back him up. The film’s paper thin plot is tattooed and covered in glitter to the point that we stop caring about subtext and clichéd storylines and we decide to surrender our better judgment to the swirling of colorful lights and irresistible pop music. The crash is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the sugar rush.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Adam Shankman
Screenwriter: Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language)