Movie review: 'Rock of Ages' serves up hits and misses
If you're old enough to remember when bands like Journey, Twisted Sister and Def Leppard dominated the radio, "Rock of Ages" is made for you.
It's also a chilling reminder that you're getting old both because of the built-in nostalgia of the '80s hits that fill this jukebox musical, and because the movie's fresh-faced 20-something romantic leads were born after 1987, when the movie is set.
Fresh off the bus in Los Angeles is Sherrie Christian (played by Utah native Julianne Hough), a singer with a dream and a record collection both of which she loses in short order on the Sunset Strip. She's befriended by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), another would-be rock singer who works at The Bourbon Club, a legendary concert venue. Drew persuades the club's aged-rocker owner, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), to hire Sherrie as a waitress.
The Bourbon Club is on the brink of financial collapse, and Dupree and his No. 2, Lonny (Russell Brand), have hopes that a much-hyped final concert by megaband Arsenal will save them. It's a gamble, both because the club is being targeted by a moral watchdog group led by the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and because of Arsenal's unstable frontman, rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).
Jaxx's appearance at The Bourbon Club also threatens to drive a wedge between lovebirds Drew and Sherrie by bringing Drew into sight of Jaxx's slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) and by bringing Sherrie into proximity of Jaxx's legendary sexual magnetism.
In adapting the Broadway hit, director Adam Shankman ("Hairspray") scrubs the rougher edges of rock 'n' roll excess. Jaxx's seduction of a Rolling Stone writer (Malin Akerman) remains safely PG-13, and the girls in Mary J. Blige's strip club where Sherrie later lands don't ever remove so much as a stocking.
The songs are the stars of "Rock of Ages," with a familiar passage of, say, "Sister Christian" or "Harden My Heart" prompting pleasant twinges of recognition. The movie doesn't rock out as hard as it could, as it puts its emotional beats on the sappy power ballads (including an awful double shot of Foreigner, "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Want to Know What Love Is"). Meanwhile, the choreography, by Shankman's fellow "So You Think You Can Dance" judge Mia Michaels, veers toward obvious pantomime, such as when Zeta-Jones' blue-hairs point their fingers, "Charlie's Angels"-style, as they sing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."
The hardest-rocking person onscreen is Cruise, who gives a masterful portrayal of the dissipated rock star shirtless, tattooed, sometimes barely coherent, but able to put it together onstage to belt out thunderous renditions of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me."
The weak link in "Rock of Ages," alas, is Hough, who's never going to be a rocker chick, no matter how many thigh-baring outfits she wears. Hough is an amazing dancer and a promising actress, but as a singer she's reedy and wispy her voice is more suitable for Nashville, rather than the raw energy of the rock world.
In the end, "Rock of Ages' " celebration of classic rock is more likely to have you reaching for your old LPs than wanting to watch the movie again.
'Rock of Ages'
The jukebox musical recycles '80s rock standards, but doesn't surpass the originals.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, June 15.
Rating • PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language.
Running time • 123 minutes.