Movie musicals are magical. They’re the amalgamation of the two best art forms, the two that speak in one way or another to the most people. In recent years, however, musicals have been on a decline. The sexy, but underwhelming Nine comes to mind as well as 2010’s Christina Aguilera flop, Burlesque. You have to go back five years to reach the last great musicals in the form of Once and Hairspray. The latter was so lively and warm that all but the most cynical of filmgoers found joy in it. The director of that wonderful film is back this week with his adaptation of the hit Broadway play, Rock of Ages, and while it is disappointing upon recollection, it, like Hairspray, has a ton of energy and a great soundtrack. If it doesn’t get your toes tapping, then you might be dead.
The film takes place in 1987. Sherrie (Julianne Hough) is a fledgling singer who just arrived in Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a star. After meeting Drew (Diego Boneta), who runs to her aide when a purse snatcher attacks her, she lands a job with him at The Bourbon Room, the famous nightclub owned by Dennis (Alec Baldwin) that gave the world’s biggest rock star, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) his start. She quickly learns that fame isn’t an easy thing to achieve and that her idyllic dreams may not become reality.
Rock of Ages has a pretty simple set-up, one that doesn’t give much leeway for characterization. If the story is bare, then the characters are thin and their relationships blossom far too quickly to be convincing. If you’re expecting to care about the characters, similar to Hairspray or Once, you’re bound to be disappointed, but as far as pure spirit and vigor go, Rock of Ages has it in spades. The animated renditions of classic 80’s hair metal songs like Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” are wonderfully performed, both visually and aurally, though the former is definitely better than the latter. While you may be surprised by just how well Tom Cruise sings, he’s still far from excellent and given that he’s lip-synching anyway, one can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t hire someone with more vocal talent.
The most exuberant moments in the film come from the meshing of popular songs, like Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” They’re blended so well that what they create stands alone as a unique song, despite their familiar parts. Every musical number in the film, including these dazzling mash-ups, are performed with pizzazz from a committed cast and it’s impossible not to enjoy watching certain actors step out of their comfort zones to do something different, even if it is a bit painful watching Alec Baldwin through up the devil horns and sing into a beer bottle. Regardless of any criticisms that can be lobbed at Cruise’s questionable vocal talent, he puts everything into his role, playing a drugged up, constantly drunk womanizing rock star. The stuff he says is so off-the-wall that if his real world behavior hadn’t recently calmed down, I’d say he’s basically just playing himself.
Despite a general indifference most will feel towards the characters and what happens to them, the songs are nevertheless cleverly integrated into what’s going on at that particular moment in time. Unlike Across the Universe, which tried to create a narrative through songs from one band that weren’t necessarily connected in such a way, Rock of Ages borrows from many bands who sang about a number of different topics, allowing the writers more freedom to take the story in the direction they wanted to while still having the musical content to back it up. Unfortunately, the movie so often succumbs to melodrama and typical screenplay misunderstandings that too much of its runtime is given to slow ballads, which effectively sucks away much of its appeal.
But when Rock of Ages is fun, it’s really fun. The movie may be a bit mopey, but it knows it’s silly and occasionally mocks itself as it absurdly transitions into certain songs, like when Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin break into a rendition of REO Speedwagon’s love song, “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” You’ll be laughing at how clumsily the transition happens, but that’s precisely the point. You’re supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to have fun, whether that means laughing or singing along. Rock of Ages knows this and though it’s far from amazing, that is its greatest strength.
Rock of Ages receives 3/5