Is Rock of Ages timeless or just tired? Maybe both. With its stellar cast and equally great performances, you'd think all would be well. You'd be wrong. Rock of Ages reminds me of a real rock opera, Tommy, which was made into a movie 37 years ago. Tommy was ground-breaking as a record, powerful on stage, but fell flat on screen. As with Tommy, the problem here may actually be a product of the treatment not the tunes.
First, the good: Tom Cruise fans, rejoice -- Cruise is terrific as Stacee Jaxx. Imagine combining the look of Brett Michaels (today) with the moves of Axl Rose (in his prime), and that gives you a sense of the amazingly buff star's turn as a rock god. No question, Cruise owns the screen whenever he appears. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are brilliant together. Their comic timing is impeccable and must be revisited in a future buddy film. Catherine Zeta-Jones reminded me quickly why she won an Oscar for Chicago. Malin Akerman is surprisingly and disarmingly funny.
Now, the bad: Sadly, these great performances couldn't allow me to shake the unsettling feeling that I was watching a big-budget episode of Glee (Rock of Ages cost a reported $80 million to make). These terrific actors are merely supporting players to the admittedly talented but syrupy real stars of this movie. Julianne Hough is her ever-adorable self and that hurts when we are asked to suspend disbelief and imagine that she briefly becomes a stripper (I couldn't). Equally cute Diego Boneta, who also displays a pleasant voice (in an American Idol sort of way) is well cast as the boy Juilanne would most likely fall for on screen. But I was never immersed in the movie. I was always consciously observing it. Even moments of laugh-out-loud humor could not save the feeling I was watching a two-hour, highly sanitized, music video. For me, the film would play better on my iPad, listening with headphones, than viewing it on the big screen, where it just felt out of place.
How ironic that a film purportedly celebrating rock prominently featured a song voted by the readers of Rolling Stone magazine (also highlighted in the movie) as the worst song of the 1980's. According to the magazine, "We Built This City" won "what could be the biggest blow out victory in the history of the Rolling Stone's Readers Poll." The song featured along with it in a "mash-up" was another rock anthem, "We're Not Gonna Take It." I heard the chorus of that song on my car radio on the way home from the theater as the new jingle for Extended Stay Hotels. How fitting. The film nearly put me to sleep. Plus, I make a sincere plea to all television and movie producers -- enough already with "Don't Stop Believin'." If I hear that song one more time (in a show that is not a high school musical) I am going to scream. Also, many of the film's numerous musical numbers felt forced and over the top on screen. The exaggeration and campiness that works so well on the Broadway stage and even translated to film so well in director Adam Shankman's own 2007 adaptation of Hairspray, sometimes devolved into parodies that seemed more at home in a skit on Saturday Night Live.
Perhaps I am too harsh in calling this a slick re-telling (or re-singing) of the tried-and-true "boy meets, girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" formula, set to the soundtrack of the '80s (think more Broadway and less Sunset Strip). I can't fight the casting or the performances or even the material (cue rendition of "I Can't Fight This Feeling"). After all, the play on which the film is based has enjoyed international success on stage. So maybe it's just me being too old to "get it." I admit, I am jaded when it comes to music. As an electric guitar player myself for more than 40 years (brace for the final soundtrack reference), "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." I just didn't love Rock of Ages.