Toe-tapper too polished to ‘Rock’
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 15, 2012
“Rock of Ages,” the hit Broadway jukebox musical set to toe-tapping 1980s power ballads and hair-band anthems, takes place in the proud years of analog, when bands could still be discovered in the fetid clubs along Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip and people bought vinyl “records” in places called “stores.”
The fact that this affectionately mocking homage to acts such as Journey, Guns N’ Roses and Pat Benatar comes by way of Auto-Tuned singers such as Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta and Tom Cruise makes “Rock of Ages” an unusually enervating experience.
As over-processed as Dee Snider’s hair, the cast’s voices sweetened until they’re sticky, this frenetic, fitfully amusing pastiche pays homage to rock’s grit, sweat and authenticity. But the movie itself never deigns to traffic in such earthy pops and scratches. Rather, “Rock of Ages” flashes its ersatz swagger and antiseptic style as confidently as Cruise wears his character’s jewel-encrusted codpiece.
That sartorial flourish, by the way, is only slightly upstaged by the butt-less chaps, fur coat and sexually suggestive tattoos that Cruise dons to play Stacee Jaxx, the aging rock star who pounces seductively from the shadows in “Rock of Ages.”
Like everything else in the movie, Stacee is a mash-up -- in this case, between the Scarlet Pimpernel and Axl Rose -- whose presence at a Sunset club called the Bourbon Room is guaranteed to bring the bar out of financial insolvency. At least that’s the hope of the club’s proprietor, Dennis (Alec Baldwin), who with his British factotum, Lonny (Russell Brand), oversees nightly debaucheries that inevitably end in what he dreamily calls a “sea of puke” and dozens of upraised index and pinkie fingers amid cries of “rock-and-roll!”
It’s into this maelstrom of caricatured mayhem and excess that a wide-eyed singer named Sherrie (Hough) arrives one night, fresh off the bus from Oklahoma. Change the point of origin slightly, and Sherrie’s arrival in L.A. is beat-for-beat the same as Christina Aguilera’s character in “Burlesque,” in which Hough had a supporting role and that, along with “Footloose” (another Hough outing) provides the narrative structure through which “Rock of Ages” has been extruded.
As Sherrie befriends a sweet bar back named Drew (Boneta), a bunch of censorious squares are gathering to harsh the kids’ rebellious vibe and shut down the Bourbon, led by Catherine Zeta-Jones as a character who -- what do you know, another mash-up -- dresses like Tipper Gore and dances like Michael Jackson.
In fact, Zeta-Jones’s “Thriller” moves -- snuck into a bizarre production number of Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” set in a church -- exemplify the fleeting bits of inspired lunacy that lend an otherwise turgid, fatally dull exercise in overproduction momentary fizz. (Most of the others arrive by way of Baldwin and Brand, as well as Cruise and Malin Ackerman, whose libidinous duet of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is staged with an eye toward goofy playfulness more than explicit sexuality.)
Directed by Adam Shankman -- whose screen adaptation of “Hairspray” balanced camp and historic meaning with such bracing exuberance -- “Rock of Ages” gets too mired in plotty cul de sacs, manufactured setbacks and numbers that are all staged as show-stoppers. In the words of the Journey song that serves as a climactic singalong, it goes on and on and on and on.
At one point in “Rock of Ages,” Baldwin can be seen singing into a hairbrush, a sweet celebration of that time-honored ritual of bathroom rock gawds from time immemorial. But the movie embraces that ethic to a fault, getting by on borrowed gestures, style and attitude and never generating a genuine sense of vitality all of its own. (Mary J. Blige delivers the film’s most soulful vocal performance, as a worldly-wise strip-club manager who oversees a bizarrely acrobatic production number.)
As much fun as it is to watch Cruise wink at his own star persona -- in a turn reminiscent of his similarly self-deprecating cameo in “Tropic Thunder” -- and as welcome as its wackiest moments are, “Rock of Ages” never attains Bic-lighter-worthy transcendence. With every hair carefully in place, every note tweaked and every moment cut from the same block of plastic-wrapped Hollywood cheese, it’s content to keep toes tapping, when it should be bringing the arena to its feet.
Contains sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking and profanity.