A soundtrack stuffed with ’80s chart-toppers, a gleefully self-mocking turn from Tom Cruise and a whole lot of gnarly hairdos aren’t enough to recommend the bigscreen version of “Rock of Ages,” a jukebox tuner that knows the licks and lyrics but not the music. Absent the infectious live-audience energy of Chris D’Arienzo’s legit hit, this affectionate glam-rock-a-thon reps a visually bland staging of frankly insipid material, never tapping into the raucous, go-for-broke energy that would spin the show’s cliches into gold, let alone platinum. Warners release will thrash out a decent opening, but won’t crowd-surf for long.
Given the proliferation of high-school musicals and American idols on TV, the spectacle of aspiring young singers belting out an umpteenth cover of Journey offers little in the way of novelty value. In years to come, this proud tribute to hair metal’s heyday may be remembered as a creaky cultural relic born of not only Hollywood’s ongoing search for Broadway-based hits, but also the ’80s nostalgia craze that spawned such recent items as “Take Me Home Tonight” and the remake of “Footloose” (whose female lead, Julianne Hough, also toplines here).
In transferring “Rock of Ages” to the bigscreen, scenarists D’Arienzo, Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb have largely retained the show’s two-dozen-plus hard-rock and heavy-metal hits, barely held together by a love story that unfolds under the bright lights of the Sunset Strip. That formula worked well enough onstage, buoyed by a live rock-concert atmosphere and ample doses of self-reflexive humor.
Onscreen, as directed by Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”), everything seems less tongue-in-cheek and more earnestly one-dimensional. The romance feels drippier, the numbers choppier; one can sense the energy being desperately expended in hopes of getting viewers to fist-pump in the aisles. Yet no matter how often the setlist urges you to don’t stop believin’ and cum on feel the noize, any such impulses are deflated by the reality of what’s onscreen: lip-synched performances and musicvideo-ready poses, sliced and diced in a whirlwind of power chords and flailing camerawork. Neither a satisfying drama nor a vivid mosh-pit immersion, the pic plays like a series of karaoke videos produced at great expense, much of it spent on hair products.
It’s 1987 when cute, sweet Midwestern gal Sherrie Christian (Hough) arrives in Los Angeles with her sights set on a singing career. She soon meets and falls for Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), an equally cute, sweet aspiring rocker who gets her a job at the Bourbon Room, a legendary rock club run by the world-weary Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his party-hearty technician, Lonny (Russell Brand). Though this dive’s seen better days, it’s jammed with enough sweaty, drunken revelers every night to live up to its promise of “Nothin’ but a Good Time.”
A good time, alas, is precisely what the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) hopes to quash, in yet another stale, “Footloose”-style movie subplot skewering conservative moral gatekeepers. Backed by a chorus of church ladies in pleated skirts as she urges her enemies to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Zeta-Jones’ political banshee declares war on the Bourbon Room and its headline-grabbing latest act, Stacee Jax (Cruise).
Whatever one’s reservations up to this point, there’s no doubting the impact of this Dionysian rock idol’s arrival on the scene. Accompanied at all times by a pet monkey, a sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti), and various half-naked women, Stacee makes a decidedly, um, cheeky first appearance in leather chaps and satanic crotchwear, giving off a palpable whiff of sex and booze.
Channeling the likes of Axl Rose and Keith Richards with his tattoos, heavy furs and even heavier eyeshadow, Cruise clearly relishes the opportunity to play against type even as he sends up his world’s-biggest-movie-star identity, displaying a cock-of-the-rock strut that viewers haven’t seen since his turn in “Magnolia.” And whether he’s turning Jon Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” into a rebel yell or ordering his fans to “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” the thesp socks over his singing duties with aplomb.
The entire ensemble is in fine musical form: Zeta-Jones still has the singing and hoofing chops she showed in “Chicago,” and Mary J. Blige adds a touch of class as a strip-club den mother who takes Sherrie under wing when fate starts bringin’ on the heartbreak. As for the vocally adept young leads, Hough imbues her small-town girl with a winsome pluck; less engaging is Boneta, whose puppy-dog affect unfortunately makes Drew’s third-act descent into boy-band hell feel all too fitting.
Though crammed with the racy lyrics and suggestive dance moves endemic to its milieu, the PG-13 pic feels awkwardly stranded between naughty and nice any time it broaches the subject of sex. When Stacee and a probing Rolling Stone journalist (Malin Akerman) do a dirty duet on Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” their hot-and-heavy pantomime flirts with outrage but seems unwilling to go all the way. The indecision is typical of the movie’s identity crisis; it’s a rock musical that’s finally afraid to let its hair down.
Overall, “Rock of Ages” could use less “Glee” and more grunge, which is less a knock on Jon Hutman’s pungent production design and Rita Ryack’s terrific costumes than on the material’s squeaky-clean sensibility. Further undermining the aural adrenaline, volume levels seemed curiously low at the screening reviewed.