There is something deeply unsettling about watching the beginning of Rock of Ages. The musical, which takes place in the 1980s, is all about a girl falling for a boy in the City of Angels and while that’s normal enough, it’s exceptionally difficult to tell at first just how seriously the movie takes itself. Is this film from director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) a traditional musical or is it entirely tongue-in-cheek?
The answer comes soon enough, but not in a way that makes the audience comfortable. Before the first five minutes are up, we are introduced to the owner of The Bourbon Room, the hip L.A. club where much of the movie will take place. Said owner, Dennis Dupree (who is portrayed by none other than Alec Baldwin), soon after we first see him and his longer-than-normal hair, is crowd surfing. Alec Baldwin as a grungy aging rock club owner is crowd surfing. Clearly Shankman’s film leans more than a little towards the comedy side of things.
Dupree is actually on the fringe of the film, the true stars are Julianne Hough as Sherrie Christian and Diego Boneta as Drew Boley. Sherrie is the small town girl looking to make it as a singer and Drew is the wise city boy who takes her under his wing and with whom she quickly falls in love. Drew wishes to be famous too, and when the opportunity presents itself, he takes it but he ends up losing Sherrie due to a miscommunication.
Honestly, none of that is really relevant. What you need to know is this – the film is played almost wholly for laughs, Tom Cruise plays an aging rock star but it’s never quite clear whether he’s acting tired because he’s sleepwalking through the part or as an earnest attempt to portray the character, and there is lots and lots of ’80s music. Whether you enjoy the film will actually depend far more on whether you enjoy the renditions of the songs than anything else.
Does Tom Cruise singing “Paradise City” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” sound like fun? Are you interested in Catherine Zeta-Jones performing “Hit Me with Your Best Shot?” How do you feel about Diego Boneta doing “I Wanna Rock” and Mary J. Blige, Constantine Maroulis, and Julianne Hough belting out “Any Way You Want it” and Cruise joining them for “Every Rose has its Thorn?” Are you excited by the notion of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand duetting on “I Can’t Fight this Feeling?” Answer “yes” to those questions and you’re going to enjoy Rock of Ages. If your eyebrows went up at that partial track list and a chuckle or two escaped your lips, this is probably not the movie for you.
It is true that the cast is excellent, beyond those already mentioned, Paul Giamatti, Malin Akerman, and Bryan Cranston all appear. But, it is all so over the top and silly that even the jokes fail to land. At some point, you just want it to end, yet at just over two hours for the theatrical edition and nearly 15 more minutes for the extended (both are included on the Blu-ray release), it doesn’t.
Tom Cruise, who has done some brilliant send-ups before (Tropic Thunder) really is the biggest disappointment here as Stacee Jaxx. There is just nothing funny about a guy so drunk and drugged that he is virtually comatose and completely controlled by his evil manager (that would be Giamatti’s part).
The best thing about Rock of Ages are the behind the scenes discussions included as extras. What we get here are the actual musicians, whose songs are included in the film, talking about not only the songs themselves but also what life was like for them in the 1980s. Featurettes on making the movie are less good but still nominally interesting. A music video, the ability to watch songs from the film, a Florida tourism ad (really), and UltraViolet and DVD copies are also included.
As for the highlight of the feature film, that would be in the technical aspects of it (and even they are not perfect). The film looks beautiful, full of all the glitz, glamour, and filth one associates with 1980s rock stars. The stage lighting looks great, and the only thing remotely fuzzy about Stacee Jaxx is his mind (and his monkey). From textures on outfits to the dirty bathroom floor at The Bourbon Room, the detail is great. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack truly rocks during the songs, but is a let down when folks are just talking. When I say “let down” I mean strictly in terms of the volume – if you set your volume to be appropriate for the musical numbers much of the dialogue will play out far too quietly. The surrounds are well used, particularly in the club scenes, but the thumb-jockeying required will take away from some of that.
Truly, one’s appreciation of the film totally and completely hinges on their love of the particular performances of the songs given here. If you love the original versions you may not love what’s done to the songs, but it’s probably worth giving the movie a shot. If you hate the music, these versions of the songs will do nothing to convince you that you’re wrong. Shankman and company certainly aren’t trying to do anything new with the tale here (small town girl goes to the big city and falls in love is very old school), so there isn’t much to look to but those songs and for me, they’re simply not enough.