Rock ‘n’ roll gathers moss
Ryan Summerlin June 21, 2012
A musical assemblage of hard rock and heavy metal songs of the ’80s, “Rock of Ages” is less about its three saccharine romances and more about a transitional period in youth culture. Following two decades of music centered around youthful rebellion, teens and young adults discovered their power to shape the world as consumers. Better financially managed, boy bands, rap and pop slipped into the folds of Reaganomics. A retrospective of the period could illuminate this cultural transition, but “Rock of Ages” isn’t that movie.
Based on a mildly successful Broadway production, the film’s most iconic character is bandanna’d rocker Stacee Jaxx. Played by Tom Cruise, Jaxx favors bejeweled codpieces and drunken nights of revelry over actually performing. Cruise’s intense focus energizes Jaxx, but fails to persuade us that Stacee remains high and zoned out. (The character loosely resembles Axel Rose, whose first Guns N’ Roses album debuted in 1987). His manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) tells a young hopeful that the secret to Jaxx’s long career is the rocker’s broken heart.
Since Jaxx got his start at The Bourbon club on Sunset Strip, he agrees to perform there gratis to help club owner Dennis Dupree (a bewigged Alec Baldwin), raise much-needed funds.
Like Jaxx, Dupree represents rock ‘n’ roll’s old school – concerned with money only insofar as it bankrolls an outrageous lifestyle. However, the music is changing to accommodate an industry led by corporate titans. Can young aspiring musicians and lovebirds, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), make good on their rock ‘n’ roll dreams or will industry changes prohibit success?
In a first-rate musical, this question would matter, but here, Sherrie and Drew are more eye-candy and less leading characters. They, along with the film’s other players, must find reasons to narrate their experiences through rock songs written two decades before this musical was conceived. Boneta is a pleasant screen presence, but when he loses Sherrie due a misunderstanding, we don’t feel his suffering. Hough, a professional hoofer from “Dancing With the Stars,” earnestly manages her acting duties, but her little-girl singing voice recalls “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
The play’s mocking, satiric slant makes a beeline for Jaxx, and his potential love affair with Rolling Stone reporter Constance (Malin Akerman). Their competing agendas place their love-match at odds, but their undeniable attraction, choreographed as a highly suggestive dance, is well-played against the song “I Wanna Know What Love is.” Similar magic happens during a humorous montage, set to music, and depicting the romantic gay awakening of macho club owner Dupree and his male club technician Lonny (Russell Brand). Their feelings seem to come out of nowhere, but Baldwin and Brand give the underperforming script a nice comic twist.
Catherine Zeta Jones plays a cartoonish Tipper Gore, feverishly working to censor rock music while her naughty mayor husband (Bryan Cranston) sneaks off for forbidden fun.
The film’s failure to fully embrace either its comedic yearnings or its political message means the viewer is constantly pushed and pulled between humorous fantasy and earnest reality. Those inclined toward pop music, or lacking the mosh-pit gene, may appreciate arrangements that transform the headbanging rock into something nearer soft rock. Even Tipper Gore, who would have to agree the songs never overstep “Rock of Ages'” PG-13 rating.