When I saw Rock of Ages on Broadway, I loved it. As a child of the 80’s, all that hair metal music brought me back. From the great song mash ups, like Heaven/More Than Words/To Be With You or Harden My Heart/Shadows of the Night, to the great 80’s costumes, to the fake lighters you could buy in the lobby to hold up during the great rock ballads…this was a great show.
But sometimes what works on the stage doesn’t always translate well to the big screen. (Or if the new musical Ghost is any indication, vice versa).
So You Think You Can Dance judge and Hairspray director Adam Shankman has collected quite a dazzling array of stars for this movie: Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Ackerman, Paul Giamatti, Mary J. Blige, and yes, Tom Cruise. Note: Some of these people are better at carrying a tune than others, but mostly that doesn’t matter so much in the days of auto tune. Everyone threw themselves into their roles and really committed – for better or for worse.
The story isn’t all the inventive: two young wannabe singers (Julianne Hough as Sherrie, Deigo Boneta as Drew) meet and fall in and out and back in love at the Bourbon Room, a rock club on the Sunset Strip in LA (think of the Whiskey).
Said Bourbon Room’s owner, Dennis (Baldwin) is battling unpaid back taxes and the very moral Mayor’s wife who wants to do away with the club and its rock and roll filth. Dennis is hoping that a performance by rock god Stacee Jaxx (a mostly-shirtless Tom Cruise) will save the Bourbon Room’s financial problems. Jaxx himself is in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
The songs mostly work in the context of the plot, and the group numbers work best of all. The best number is a duet between Baldwin and Brand where the less you know about it the better off you are. In the end, all the storylines are tied together with song and dance, and lots of leather and hairspray. And yes, with Journey’s omnipresent ballad, Don’t Stop Believin’.
But as I said, the translation from stage to screen didn’t really work. While the show had a nice twist at the end (Sherrie and Drew get back together but don’t necessarily live out their grand rock dreams), the movie gives you exactly what you think will happen. Some of the songs seemed shoe-horned in; some characters too. Mary J. Blige’s Justice Charlier, manager of the local strip club, is never really fleshed out. A problem that the show never had because on Broadway you can have a character come in for a few minutes, sing a few lines, and walk off…and you don’t need back story. In a movie, however, that lack of back story is glaring.
Another issue I had was that everyone was just so darned earnest. Too earnest. The show was fun because it was cheesy, the actors knew it was cheesy, the audience knew it was cheesy. That is where so much of the fun came from. If you take yourself just a bit too seriously with something like this, the careful house of cards that holds it together just crumbles and you lose that sense of whimsy that made it work in the first place.
The biggest problem however, was Julianne Hough. I don’t watch Dancing with the Stars, but I have been led to understand that she is very good on that show. Ok, she is a good dancer. Her voice is another story. She can carry a tune, but the quality of her voice was too high, too piercing, to work. I still have a headache.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer – you want to know about Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx.
Never let it be said that Cruse doesn’t commit and that the man looks pretty darned good for a 50 year old. He manages not to make a fool out of himself when he sings and sounds a bit better than OK during most of the numbers (though again…auto tune?). He plays Jaxx as a possibly drug addled star who is so overwhelmed by his own fame that he literally doesn’t know what to do with himself. You wonder how much of that is his own experience as a famous movie star. Though I’d be surprised if he has found himself in some of the same situations that Jaxx is in. Also, I don’t believe Cruise has a pet monkey named “Hey Man” who can bring him booze.
The film’s Jaxx is much more world weary and less of an outright buffoon than the show’s Jaxx, and more of a main character as well. Overall, Cruise does alright with the character and managed to surprise me. His scenes with Malin Ackerman just bordered on the intensely awkward and applauded how both of them threw aside any shame to film them.
So, should you see this? Sure, why not. Yes, that is not a ringing endorsement, I realize.
Rock of Ages has enough to recommend it if you enjoy super cheesy musicals and can overlook some glaring problems (Hough, too-quick editing). But if you can’t overlook glaring problems, perhaps you should seek alternate entertainment.
That being said, the duet with Baldwin and Brand is worth the price of admission alone.