‘Rock of Ages’ Review
The phrase “80′s rock” calls certain things to mind: big voices playing big arenas singing big power ballads to big crowds with big hair. Bigness in all its forms, in other words, was the key to the era. And it’s this part of the 80s rock scene that the new musical ‘Rock of Ages‘ gets right — maybe a little too right.
This film is one towering tribute to excess. Clocking in at over two hours and featuring 900 songs (approximate), it feels like an entire decade of music crammed into one supremely excessive movie. They didn’t pour some sugar on this thing; they poured the whole friggin’ box. And then they lit the box on fire and threw up some mock-sinister devil horns.
The cast is so huge it makes ‘Nashville’ look like ‘Secret Honor.’ There’s the idealistic young bartender (Diego Boneta), who wants nothing more than to rock (ROCK!!). There’s the idealistic young waitress (Julianne Hough) who wants nothing more than to watch the young bartender rock. There’s the washed-up rock club owner (Alec Baldwin) and his sidekick (Russell Brand) who want nothing more than to own their bar and not pay their back taxes. There’s the difficult pop singer (Tom Cruise), out of inspiration, exploited by his oily manager (Paul Giamatti), lost in a fog of booze, who wants nothing more than to pull himself up from the bottom of Act 2 of his own personal episode of ‘Behind the Music.’ There’s the mousy Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) who wants nothing more than to interview Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx, and maybe also to have sex with him. There’s the mayor of Los Angeles (Bryan Cranston) who wants nothing more than to fool around with his secretary, and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who wants nothing more than to make you think of Tipper Gore and her anti-hip hop crusades whenever she’s onscreen. If you’re sick about reading about all these characters, imagine how I feel: I had to type it all.
That’s a lot of people and plotlines for a movie already, and that’s before you throw in wall-to-wall musical numbers. There were a lot of great, schlocky pop songs in the 80s, and ‘Rock of Ages’ features every single one. Some of the cast can sing, like Boneta and Hough (who deliver a version of Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You” that’s sultrier than the original) and some of the cast is Alec Baldwin. The hits come at you fast and furious, sometimes two or three at a time in manic series mash-ups. None of the characters in ‘Rock of Ages’ do cocaine, but the film is shot and cut in such a frenzy of song and dance, you might wonder if the editors did.
The only time the movie pauses for breath is when Cruise’s Jaxx saunters into the film in the second act. Unlike everyone else in ‘Rock of Ages,’ Cruise isn’t just milking the setting for kitschy laughs, maybe because as a true icon of the 80s, he’s got a bit more respect for the period. He takes the idea of Jaxx as a washed-up has-been seriously — and why not? Until ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ a few months ago, Cruise was starting to look like a washed-up has-been himself. He brings pathos to his drunken stupor and honest-to-God star power to his musical performances. It’s as if Cruise saw Jaxx as his chance to go the Mickey Rourke route in ‘The Wrestler’ — to tackle his fame and his struggles and his weirdness head-on — which is a bold choice in a movie that introduces his character while he’s wearing leather chaps, a thong, and a metallic codpiece in the shape of a demon.
Everything Cruise does has clear purpose: gestures, posture, tattoos, even his voice, perpetually raspy from too much boozing and screaming. He oozes so much carnality you understand why Catherine Zeta-Jones is so determined to destroy him (which is good, since the Sunset Strip of the rest of the movie is so PG-13 cutesy it wouldn’t offend a nun). With long, probing stares, uncomfortable pauses, Cruise draws you in to Jaxx’s world. He’s mesmerizing. He’s also in a totally different, if arguably superior, movie than the rest of the cast.
‘Rock of Ages’ is based on a Broadway “jukebox musical,” where a story is written to accommodate a score of preexisting songs, and in bringing that musical to the screen, director Adam Shankman made absolutely no accommodations to audiences who might like their power ballads in slightly smaller doses. Everything here is big: both the successes (a duet between Baldwin and Brand scores huge cheeky laughs, as does a sex scene between Cruise and Akerman) and the failures (Boneta’s character’s big problem — stage fright — is a weird phobia for a guy who likes to sing “Juke Box Hero” in the middle of a crowded Tower Records to have).
Looking over the crazily extensive soundtrack, it occurs to me that almost all of the titles describe the experience of watching this occasionally amusing but ultimately exhausting film: “Any Way You Want It,” “Here I Go Again,” “Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away,” and, of course, “Don’t Stop Believin’” — especially the line that goes “Oh the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on…”
‘Rock of Ages′ hits theaters on June 15th
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’