Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: "Rock of Ages"

"Rock of Ages" is a soundtrack with a visual component tacked on. It's not so much a musical movie as music, with a movie.

Based on a Broadway show, "Rock of Ages" is virtually non-stop singing. The story is told through the lyrics and tunes of 1980s rock hits, sometimes intermixed with each other. Occasionally the characters will cease singing long enough for a few lines of dialogue -- but even then there's a beat going in the background, and you know the talkie part is just setting up the next number.

The experience of watching it is akin to listening to a runaway jukebox stuck in the 1970s and '80s, except the voices are replaced by those of actors who can't sing as well as the original artists.

Not that some of them aren't good, and occasionally really good. Among the latter is Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, a wastrel rock god who's part Iggy Pop, a little bit Axl Rose and a smidge of Brett Michaels (at least the hat). Cruise's pipes are surprisingly good, doing an impressive rendition of the keening wail beloved in that era.

In fact, Cruise is the best thing in the show. It's a shrewdly comedic performance, part celebration of '80s rock excesses but with a heavily ladling of satire. One scene where he seduces a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) is the movie's rollicking high point.

Even though it's technically a supporting part, Cruise steals every scene he's in, and whenever Jaxx disappears for too long the film deflates.

Certainly the main characters are dreary. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta play Sherrie and Drew, youngsters who dream of making it big in the music biz, but end up working at the fictional Bourbon Room in Los Angeles. Of course, it's only a matter of time before they get to take the stage themselves.

Neither actor is a particularly adept singer, and Hough has one of those pinched little-girl voices that sounds like she's singing through a keyhole, a la Britney Spears. She even imitates Spears' colossally annoying affection of starting every stanza with a little croaky sound.

Sherrie is the prototypical small-town girl from Tulsa, living in a lonely world, and Drew is a city boy, so of course their signature song is "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, a band that gets a heavy rotation throughout the movie. Other tunes include ones by Styx, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison and other acts Generation X-ers like myself grew up on.

I find it amusing that back in the actual '80s, these songs were disdainfully described by our elders and betters as representing the nadir of rock 'n' roll, a glammed-up shadow of the good ol' days. And now they're being held up as paragons of the genre.

I take note that in the time this story is set, 1987, the '50s were seen as the heyday. No doubt in 25 years today's Millennials will be middle-aged sell-outs looking back on the halcyon days of Lady Gaga and Kei$ha, God help us.

Alec Baldwin plays Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon, which has rock 'n' roll soaked into its timbers but is perpetually on the verge of going out of business. It's being helped in that regard by the new mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who's leading a Tipper Gore-esque crusade against smutty rock 'n' roll. Of course, she does so via singing and dancing, and is ultimately and unsurprisingly revealed to be a former Stacee Jaxx groupie.

Russell Brand plays Lonny, Dennis's right-hand rocker, and they share a romantic musical interlude that manages to be funny without being homophobic. Paul Giamatti is agreeably sleazy as Jaxx's mercenary agent, who robs the Bourbon of the take from Stacee's farewell concert.

Mary J. Blige, the only real singer in the mix, has a nice turn as the manager of a strip club where Sherrie ends up during her inevitable down-and-out phase. Drew's pit of despair is much funnier, as he gets recruited into a pop boy band, complete with rainbow-colored gangsta preppy outfits.

Director Adam Shankman does much the same thing with "Rock of Ages" he did several years ago with "Hairspray," which was sort of a 1960s version of this. He supplies a lot of energy and color, but the whirlwind winds up being more exhausting than invigorating.

At 123 minutes, screenwriters Allan Loeb, Justin Theroux and Chris D'Arienzo (based on the musical book by D'Arienzo) seemed to have a hard time knowing when to quit while they were ahead. Since the story is built entirely around songs, cutting it down would've meant eliminating tunes, and one gets the sense the filmmakers spent so much energy getting the rights to the songs they couldn't bring themselves to lop a couple out.

"Rock of Ages" has a few genuine thrills, most of them centering around Cruise's fun, freewheeling turn as Stacee Jaxx. Most of the time, though, it feels like an iPod stuck in shuffle mode.

2 stars out of four

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