Glitz, glam, and bad wigs are the building blocks of Rock of Ages, Hollywood's adaptation of the hit, Hollywood-set jukebox musical. Rock of Ages is nothing if not a construction, made to misdirect from its soullessness with movie stars "cutting loose" and frenetic visuals. The high-gloss garishness applied by director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) isn't a bad idea: it's the only idea for an excessive movie about excess. Still, this is a movie you'll never be able to un-see, so think carefully before you rubberneck at this crash.
As on stage, Rock of Ages tells the 1987-set story of two dreamers: aspiring rocker Drew Boley (Diego Boneta of 90210) and aspiring actress Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough of Footloose). A barback at The Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip, Drew gets Sherrie a job as waitress just before the arrival of rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). Club owner Dennis Dupree is in a tizzy, telling his right-hand man Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand), "This place is about to become a sea of sweat, ear-shattering music and puke. So let's get moving." When Stacee arrives—with his monkey Hey Man—and installs himself in the green room, his manager Paul Gill (a perfectly cast Paul Giamatti) subjects him to an interview with Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman). Meanwhile, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones)—the politically ambitious, Tipper Gore-esque wife of L.A.'s mayor (Bryan Cranston)—campaigns against the devil music of Jaxx and the enabling done by the cash-strapped and therefore vulnerable Bourbon Room. "Rock and roll," she says, "is a disease," a point she underlines by stomping around a church and singing Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" (while struggling mightily against a Welsh accent).
Rock of Ages is full to bursting with obvious shtick, like a church organ that sounds a lot like a Hammond organ—speaking of organs, the name of Jaxx's first album ("Stick Meat") emblematizes the movie's safe, PG-13 crudity. Rock of Ages isn't raunchy (and it's certainly not sexy); it's "naughty." To be fair, this approach fuels the best scene, which ironically has Jaxx singing Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" to Sack's ass. The repurposing of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" as a comment on the nature of celebrity also works, so the one surprise of Rock of Ages is that Cruise basically comes off well. His singing voice doesn't really sound like him (shhh! you're not supposed to say that!), but the movie is rarely boring when he's around. Unfortunately, the movie's heart belongs to the dull ingenues, who ensure that the story will turn toothless for a traditional musical-comedy happy ending that rings entirely false (and turns Jaxx into a literally unlikely hero).
Reviewing Rock of Ages feels a bit like trying to review a Denny's milkshake. It's a crowd pleaser, all right, but with a generic, syrupy recipe, the kind most people grow out of by, oh, age 18. Shankman's frappé of '80s rock is hideous, but weirdly fascinating: for its use of movie star as rock star, its temporary honesty about the sleaze in the Hollywood cesspool (while implicating the audience for having a wallow), and the way an openly gay director—in 2012—countenances playing the very idea of homosexuality for laughs (Baldwin and Brand's duet on REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling"). By knocking boy bands, Rock of Ages also accidentally reminds us of the inauthenticity of hair metal and, even more obviously, the movie itself: talk about splitting hairs. Of course, for most musical-theater aficionados, the jukebox musical is inherently inauthentic: amusement-park theater pandering to the tourists.