Just who does Tom Cruise think he is? Or, maybe I should ask, who is he pretending to be? An awful lot of critics -- after viewing his latest movie, "Rock of Ages" -- seem to think the answer to that question is Axl Rose.
Adapted for the screen by director Adam Shankman from Chris D'Arienzo's Tony-nominated Broadway musical, "Rock of Ages" is an affectionate, apolitical, altogether banal tribute to 1980s hair metal bands such as Poison, Twisted Sister, Night Ranger and Bon Jovi. Cruise plays rock legend Stacee Jaxx, renowned as the "most unreliable man in the music industry." He sports a bandana throughout the film, an Axl Rose signature. He rises from slumbers amid a small sea of women to show off his well-tatted, athletically cut chest and abs, several of the tats demanding special attention: on his chest, a bright red rose in bloom, and on his lower abs on either side, two long-handled pistols, barrels pointed down.
During film production, an insider strategically leaked the news that Cruise was taking voice lessons from Axl Rose's vocal coach, apparently without worry about the expectations this might create.
In the film Cruise struggles to carry off Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive", and if he can't cope with the relatively tame demands of imitating New Jersey's famous hair metal crooner, what chance did he ever have of conjuring specters of the real-life Axl Rose, one of the most controversial, cussed, depraved, manic and demonically gifted hard-rock vocalists of all time?
Cruise's Jaxx wanders through the movie in a navel-gazing stupor of sex, booze and ineffectual stammering after sensible phrases. Many of his antics are straight out of the Axl Rose playbook. Jaxx is disdainful of the press and does his best to blow off a reporter from Rolling Stone, but when she calls him out in the article as the "loneliest man" in rock 'n roll, he isn't so much incensed as sexually incited. Rose has long ranked among rock's most notorious recluses. Even in the early years before anyone had heard of Guns N' Roses, he would suffer one of his infamous mood swings and disappear for days on end. At the peak of G N' R fame, he went radio silent for several years after reading one too many unflattering articles based on exclusive interviews. Cruise plays Axl-cum-Stacee Jaxx as just another rock n' roll cliché, one more narcissist who let fame go to his head, which is how many people, including some former bandmates, see Axl Rose to this day.
But the film's greatest offense -- not as film, but as a take on rock history -- isn't Cruise's unconvincing portrait of a rock star past his prime. It's the utter insult, and surely someone must have intended it as such, of enfolding Axl Rose and G N' R into the hair metal movement.
Cruise as a forgettable hair metal mediocrity -- say, Bret Michaels before rehab, reality TV and a recent Broadway hit revived his fame? Well, that might help us make sense of the career trajectory from "Risky Business" to "Rock of Ages." After all, in both films Cruise prances around in his underwear and pretends to sing rock n' roll. But Cruise as an Axl Rose-like rocker who's supposed also to be an icon of hair metal?
I hate to be the one to feed Axl's well-established penchant for paranoia -- please take a moment to detect the bone-chilling, double-voiced falsetto in the background screeching, "They're out ta get me!" -- but maybe someone really is out to get him.
It's well known G N' R rose to prominence in the mid 1980s as part of the LA scene, playing the Sunset Strip's Whiskey A Go-Go alongside hair metal bands such as Poison. But G N' R soon set themselves apart from the also-rans, taking pains early on to de-glam their look (to be reminded of why this was necessary check out Axl's hair in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video).
Of course, what was truly distinctive about G N' R was their sound -- a frenzied musical barrage blending punk-rock ferocity and speed, the aggressive anarchy of the LA streets and the bluesy bickering intensity of Slash's lead guitar. Over the top of all this apocalyptic sound and fury pulsed the electrifying, wonderfully shrill arias of Axl's desperate voice.
It was that fierce combination of musical elements that made "Appetite for Destruction" such an unusually great record, one of the most necessary hard rock albums of all time and, along with Nirvana's "Nevermind," the reason so much hard rock has seemed merely posthumous in the plus-two decades since. G N' R, in the wake of that stunning debut, on through the acoustic EP "Lies," was the definitive rock 'n' roll band in America. Notwithstanding or excusing the occasional racist lyric penned by Axl, or the paranoid xenophobia and utterly stupid misogyny of so many of their songs.
Which is why the original lineup of Guns 'N Roses was inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland this past April. Minus Axl Rose. Who refused to attend the ceremony. Who wrote a letter to the museum asking not to be included in or in any way associated with the induction itself. His response, of course, had as much to do with ongoing feuds with several of his old bandmates as with any ambivalence he might have felt about the Hall of Fame itself.
Still, his antics must have seemed nothing but good PR to the makers of "Rock of Ages." Cruise's portrait of an artist perpetually on the verge of going solo and still conducting himself as a prima donna would now seem even closer to its mark. "We'll make you one of us yet," the film seems to say on behalf of all those forgettable hair bands whose insipid music becomes slightly less forgettable for as long as we're watching this like-mindedly insipid tribute.
Somewhere somebody was eating this stuff up. "What I think Tom did was combine a combination of Bret Michaels and Axl Rose -- sort of my look and stage persona and energy," the former Poison frontman and reality TV star said at the LA premiere of the film, "and he takes Axl Rose's intense attitude and mixes them together. It was great." In this market-driven era, is it any surprise that someone sold the filmmakers the rights to a G N' R song? In fact the first tune we hear in "Rock of Ages" is "Paradise City," playing on the headphones of a young woman headed on a bus to the jungle of LA. Hey, somebody's out to get us all, or maybe just to sell us out.