Musicals are always a challenge to adapt into films—Questions like “Should we cut this scene or character?” or “Can we still keep this pivotal sequence in and still get our marketable PG-13 rating?” must always come up. In the end, they’re just like every other film—sans people belting out songs at any given moment—and capable of its mishaps and strengths. However, for Rock of Ages, the music is everything. The covers of hair metal tunes and power ballads of the 80s would have been a huge part of goodness if all the other aspects of the film were stronger. But since the film is generally underwhelming, the songs very much outshine as the true stars—oh, and so does the gritty utopia of 80s-Los Angeles, and a tattooed, stage-owning Tom Cruise proving that he might as well have been a musician and not an actor back in his rising star days.
Director Adam Shankman, who worked on another feature-length adaptation of a musical with Hairspray in 2007, was the man for this job, and the effort from him is decent, only because the screenplay is a bit scattered and doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Does it want to be the love story of a small-town girl and a city boy who are trying to make it to the big-time in Los Angeles? Does it want to be the tale of a struggling rock star with an insatiable addiction to women and managerial problems? Does it want to depict a conservative mayoral wife in her moral battle versus the “filth” of rock ‘n roll? Or does it want to showcase the woes of the two highest staffers of the Sunset Strip’s hottest nightlife spot? It’s nice to see all of these different personalities and narratives in what really is a compelling place in time, but it just spews out a mess. It doesn’t do many favors for the all-star cast either.
Taking away the cliched love story aspect, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) share the part of the film that is strongest, and most representative of what you would think when you think LA. Sherrie is an Oklahoma girl, a music fan, and an aspiring singer who moves to Los Angeles and meets Drew, also an aspiring musician. He’s also a barback at The Bourbon Room, a popular Hollywood music venue, and helps Sherrie get a job there as a cocktail waitress. After getting together for a while and then breaking up, their dreams are shattered—his rock star dreams are diminished to being manufactured in a boy band, and her only options for an income becomes serving patrons at a gentlemen’s club, and later, exotic dancing. Hough and Boneta are likable enough as the two talented young leads. However, the cast is shoved aside by Cruise’s captivating performance as Stacee Jaxx, the intriguing front man of the fictional band Arsenal. What makes his portrayal so fascinating is that Stacee is so enigmatic off-stage, but on-stage, he makes a roaring statement with his performance. Cruise is simply a natural at taking on all these facets of the character to make them his own, and he continues to prove well at taking on a variety of roles—even more than this a bit of stretch for the veteran being that this is his first musical. Stacee’s mischievous monkey Heyman—another contributor to the character’s lovable weirdness—is another delightful scene-stealer.
As for everyone else you can potentially see the movie for, let’s throw some names out there: Alec Baldwin (As Dennis Dupree, The Bourbon Room’s owner), Russell Brand (Lonny Barnett, Dennis’ partner-in-venue-management), Paul Giamatti (Paul Gil, Stacee’s manipulative manager), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Patricia Whitmore, the anti-rock ‘n roll crusader), Malin Akerman (Constance Sack, a Rolling Stone journalist who falls under Stacee’s spell), Mary J. Blige (Justice, the matriarchal owner of the Venus Club), and Bryan Cranston (Mike Whitmore, the mayor of Los Angeles and Patricia’s husband). They’re all okay, even better when they are lifted up by singing the great tunes from an era. We do live in the age of Glee and Rock of Ages, for the most part, is like the big-screen, authentically 80s version of it, which makes it only slightly funner. Numbers range from the cheesy (Stacee and Constance’s courtship during “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Dennis and Lonny’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”) to the showstopping (Stacee’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Drew’s budding career turning point with “I Wanna Rock”). The mash-ups are perfectly crafted, the most memorable one being a standoff of rock music evangelists versus the protesters led by Patricia, throwing stones at each other with “We Built This City” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” And finally, what music-centric entity nowadays doesn’t end with the ultimate anthem of optimism, “Don’t Stop Believin'”? Yup, Rock of Ages will give you that too, with pleasure.
Although it’s not necessarily a profound film—and may also greatly displease purists of the original musical with its dramatic character, plot, and sequential changes—there’s still a lot of joy in watching Rock of Ages, if you can just get past the fact that it’s pretty silly and a little sloppy. The important thing to take away is that it makes the 1980s look cool, and that the rock music that defined it is timeless and will always be something to adore. Can’t fight that feeling, right?