To be honest, there was virtually no chance I was going to love Rock of Ages. My 80s were spent listening to The Cure, The Smiths, and Siouxsie and the Banshees and I happen to think that the words “rock” and “anthem” should never be used in the same sentence. That being said, the songs of Foreigner, Journey, Def Leppard and—God help us— Night Ranger have become part of our collective consciousness, and while I never banged my head or raised my fingers in an enthusiastic devil horn during my screening, I did find myself occasionally tapping my foot.
My taste in music aside, Rock of Ages—adapted from the popular Broadway show of the same name and directed by Adam Shankman, who did such bang-up work with Hairspray—is a mediocre, flawed work, but it does have its pleasures.
One of those pleasure, and arguably the best reason to the see the film, is the “who knew?” performance by Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, an Axl Rose type rock stud who is about to give one last show at the iconic Bourbon Club in L.A., before going solo. As played by Cruise, Jaxx is the poster child for hedonism gone wrong. He views the world through a haze of booze and women and pseudo-mysticism—he’s only half-engaged, a rock god zombie. Only on stage does he come alive, and Cruise struts and oozes his way through a surprisingly credible version of Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me.
Malin Akerman is adorkable–if highly unlikely— as the Rolling Stone reporter who sees through Jaxx’s layers of denial (while simultaneously lusting after him).
A very amusing Catherine Zeta Jones is also on hand as the Tipper Gore-style mayor’s wife who protests the Bourbon Club with a little too much gusto.
At the Bourbon Club itself, we have a game Alec Baldwin as the cash-strapped owner and Russell Brand as his besotted, metal-loving sidekick. (Alec Baldwin’s epically horrible wig, which never failed to make me laugh, is either the best or the worst thing about this film. Discuss among yourselves.)
The biggest problem with Rock of Ages, I’m afraid, are the two leads. Because Rock of Ages is, yes, about a “small town girl, living in a lonely world,” we have Julianne Hough, playing an Oklahoma naïf who brings her heavy metal aspirations to the Sunset Strip. Hough, most recently seen in Footloose, is, indeed, a teenage dream—a wholesome blonde embodiment of every 15-year-old boy’s fantasy. But she’s hardly a riveting figure. Pairing her with the cheesily bland Diego Boneta, as a bartender at the Bourbon with his own rock star ambitions, is a mistake. We look at our watches, waiting for Cruise, Baldwin, Zeta-Jones—or even Jaxx’s hilariously sneering pet baboon—to reemerge.
Rock of Ages is set in the late ’80s, right when heavy metal was giving way to rap and boy-band pop. It has a sweet nostalgia about it—but, Cruise’s performance aside, it hardly has any of the raw power or sexual abandon of real metal. It’s no coincidence that the #thingsmoremetalthanRockofAges hashtag has popped up on Twitter. Rock of Ages is a metal film you can take your granny to—for better or for worse.