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Rock of Ages

June 19, 2012
Rock of Ages

There’s an obvious slam against Rock of Ages, both the movie and the musical it was based on. It goes something like, this is just a cynical attempt to cobble together a hackneyed plot to string together a few popular songs to draw in an audience. Now, this is true, but that’s basically how Cole Porter wrote his musicals. It’s a cheap shot, and it does the movie a disservice not to let it stand or fall on its own merits. I mean, the movie isn’t great, but it’s pretty fun for the most part.

So, said hackneyed plot: blonde, corn-fed Sherrie (Julianne Hough) takes the bus from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to make her career as a singer. She lands at The Bourbon Room, at the head of the Sunset Strip, run by the aging, potbellied Dennis (Alec Baldwin) with the assistance of the mildly odd comic relief Lonny (Russell Brand). It’s here that she meets Drew (Diego Boneta), a barback with aspirations of rock and roll fame.

The club is gearing up for the final show of the legendary band Arsenal, led by the dazed, erratic Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), whose slick manager (Paul Giamatti) is aiming him towards a solo career. The Bourbon Room needs the money the Arsenal show will bring in; they’re caught between Stacee’s rock and the hard place the uptight Christian mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is trying to put them in with taxes, health codes, and anything else she can find. And Stacee is headed for his own breakdown, egged on by a reporter from Rolling Stone (Malin Åkerman).

If you know anything about musical theater, you know basically how this shapes up: the various relationships are laid out in a build-up to the big concert, which upends everything, and the second act eventually straightens everything out. This isn’t the movie to see if you want a great story; it lives and dies primarily on the strength of its songs and secondarily on how amusing it can be between them.

And here’s where things start to come apart: only about two out of every three songs really land. Boneta is decent enough with the ballads, but he just doesn’t have it in him to pull off the heavier numbers. Cruise doesn’t even nail the ballads. In fact, Mary J. Blige shows more raw emotional energy in her small supporting part than these two put together, which is a serious irony considering the “cock rock” label the original songs carried.

Thankfully, Cruise acquits himself in his acting, though some might quip that a spaced-out, washed-up former idol isn’t a huge stretch for him. Actually, he seems to be channelling Charlie Sheen quite effectively. He and Åkerman pair well together when they face off, only to be outdone by Baldwin and Brand’s hilarious, show-stopping duet.

On the down side, Boneta and Hough have no chemistry, and Boneta in particular brings his inter-song scenes to a screeching, awkward halt. Hough is better; she never gets the chance to really prove herself one way or the other as an actress, but she gets plenty of time to show off her singing talent. Her voice isn’t as mature as Blige’s, and lacks the edge she’d need if she were in the Runaways or Heart, but it’s got the brassy body it needs for the parts she’s given.

Still, what the songs sometimes lack in quality, the rest of the movie makes up in entertainment. There’s plenty of ’80s references, from the feathered hair to the leotards to Åkerman’s tortoise-shell glasses. And the denim. So much denim.

But those references are only good for provoking wry grins. A strong supporting cast manages to keep the story light and bouncing along its way. Because at its heart, rock and roll is about having fun. And while the movie may be extremely silly at times, the cast are clearly having fun making it, and that genuine fun comes across to us in the audience as well, despite the flaws.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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