THE Screened Review by Matthew Marko
It’s all glamor and no meat, but if you’re into the fairy tale of bright lights and loud music of rock and roll without the actual history of ruined lives and real problems, then Rock of Ages has you—and an exhaustive stable of karaoke and rock compilation hits—covered.
Talking about Rock of Ages requires a certain set of expectations going in. Yes, this is an adaptation of a Broadway musical. Yes, it’s unashamed of that. And yes, it’s yet another in the line of many many attempts by people to turn a real period of time into a bright, candy-colored trip down memory lane, a way to appeal to the ‘I know that song!’ set of teenagers raised on Rock Band or Glee (pick your poison, they aren’t as different as either group would be comfortable admitting), without offending the sensibilities of the people who grew up on the music, now old and ready to wipe away the darker parts of that era.
Which explains a lot of the choices the movie makes. Rock of Ages is two stories: a young girl named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) who moves to LA with dreams of becoming a rock and roll singer; and Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), the World’s Biggest Rock Star, about to leave his band for a solo career and an amalgam of every bad boy rock and roll cliche that has ever or will ever exist. She wants to make it big, coming out of the sticks, looking for love and fame. He’s a burnout, drowning in excess and teetering on self-parody, a VH1 special waiting to happen.
The two stories converge on a club called The Bourbon Room, run by the incomprehensibly weird duo of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as a pair of hardcore fans of the music and the lifestyle. The club is currently being besieged by a group of Christian mothers, the easiest and laziest villains in the world, who want to ‘clean up the city’. They’re lead by Catherine Zeta-Jones, working out her personal vendetta against her own rock and roll past as she helps her husband (Bryan Cranston, who is sadly in the movie for all of ten minutes) with his Mayoral campaign on the typical family values platform.
This is a lot of set up, as might be expected for a full stage show, but you can kind of imagine how it all plays out. The club’s in risk of closing, everyone has their hopes built up only to have them dashed, but then in the end (spoiler) the power of Rock And Roll saves everyone and everything, because that’s what it does in both musicals and in life. You might be rolling your eyes at this, and if that’s the case then Rock of Ages is definitely not for you. Rock of Ages doesn’t care that it’s completely and utterly fake. It rushes headlong into that fakeness and embraces it like the teased hair and ripped jeans lover that it is.
This is the magical musical fairy-land of Rock and Roll, where every problem is simply some sort of misunderstanding and every bad guy can be defeated by a song. Where everyone lives like a rock star, but nobody abuses any substance harder than booze and nobody is too drunk not to consent to the mostly implied sex that seemingly happens whenever someone plugs a guitar into an amp. It’s hilarious that the only real villains here are a group of uppity Christian mothers, because the whole movie seems like the kind of show that is made to sell to those people, all of whom probably lived big lives enjoying the loud music of their generation before they settled into being prim and proper.
But that’s okay. In fact, it’s kind of the point. By taking out any sort of reality, the movie creates this mythic world where all that matters is the music and the charisma and the good times of the actors. And it definitely feels like everyone is having a good time, from the surprisingly funny comedy duo of Brand and Baldwin, to the great charisma of Julianne Hough and Tom Cruise. Cruise is in top form, a safer send up of his arrogant character from Magnolia, reminding us why he’s still one of the few big movie stars in a post-star era. And Julianne Hough continues to impress, with an energy and believability that most actresses her generation don’t have. She has a pretty thankless role as the innocent put into this world, but she handles it with aplomb. Even late-movie scenes in the world’s most PG strip club work mostly because of her selling it.
You notice I haven’t even mentioned Diego Boneta, who manages to wind up on the front of the poster and gets billing alongside everyone else. That’s because he’s lame, the cardboard nice guy who’s set up early as a love interest for Sherrie because she’s too young and innocent to be bedded by a guy twice her age like Tom Cruise. Even more hilariously, Cruise’s character ends up paired off with Malin Akerman dressed and styled to look shockingly just like Julianne Hough. It’s the Playskool model of the classic rock and roll tale, and it would be a disaster if you didn’t get the sense that everyone knew what they were doing and were having fun taking the piss out of it.
Which leaves us with the music, which in the end is all that matters in a musical. It’s an array of good if unimaginative covers of music even someone who isn’t into rock and roll (like me, admittedly) knows most of by name and even most of the lyrics too. If you’ve ever spent a night at a karaoke bar, or played any music game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you’re undoubtedly going to know something (if not everything) here. It’s a who’s who of favorites, and so in many ways it becomes a silly wrapper around a mix tape of rock anthems, and that’s about as far as it ever tries to reach.
I don’t think Rock of Ages is going to win over anyone who isn't already into musicals or this particular watered-down version of rock and roll, and if you go in wanting to hate it its artifice and camp are going to send you into a rage. It’s totally phony, from the opening credits done in diamond plate text to the closing cast sketched like that one A-ha video everyone knows. But it carries off exactly what it attempts to do, a harmless fluff of a movie parading around like a toddler pretending to be a rock star. So long as nobody goes in expecting anything of any substance, there’s solid, disposable joy to be had mining music history for lighthearted fun.
Trailer: Rock Of Ages
The kids just want to rock but the fuddy-duddy old people want to shut down all their fun! Where have I heard that one before?
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