THE MOST laughable thing about Rock of Ages, the new jukebox musical set amidst LA’s poodle-haired glam metal scene of the late 1980s, is not the sight of a turned-up-to-eleven Tom Cruise sporting Axl Rose hair, a thong and pistol tattoos pointing towards his dragon-headed codpiece.
Nor is it watching a game Alec Baldwin embrace the real reason his ageing rocker finds himself drawn to the gender-blurred bands and patrons frequenting his legendary Whisky-A-Go-Go style rock club. It’s not even listening to Russell Brand as he struggles to nail down an Ozzie Osbourne-esque Brummie accent without deviating into the kind of dulcet Scouse tones more usually adopted by Fab Four impersonators.
No, it’s the lack of self awareness it displays when it attempts to ridicule one desperate-for-fame character for selling out and joining a New Kids on the Block-style boy band instead of sticking to his dream of playing equally safe, soulless, radio friendly music with his own ridiculously attired corporate rock act.
That, however, was probably to be expected from a film primed to appeal to audiences who not only lap up things like Mamma Mia! and the recent Footloose remake, but whose exposure to the film’s godawful music is more likely to have come from playing various PlayStation games or hearing caterwauling cover versions performed on teen shows such as Glee and TV talent vacuums such as The X Factor. That’s too bad, though, because instead of thoroughly embracing its awfulness and becoming a kitschy tribute to the idiotic spirit of excess documented in say, Mötley Crüe’s biography The Dirt, it’s another bland, boring, follow-your-dreams tale that eagerly turns Journey’s dreadful Don’t Stop Believing into a self-improvement mantra for fresh-off-the-bus dreamers.
Quite why director Adam Shankman (who made the similarly neutered Hairspray remake/stage-adatation) chooses to spend so much of the film in the company of its two anonymous young leads (Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough) when he’s got Cruise and Baldwin at his disposal is anyone’s guess. Cruise, in particular, seems to be under the impression he’s signed on for a different movie, one in which he’s the rightful focal point and star.
True, he might approach his whisky swilling, groupie-banging frontman Stacee Jaxx with his customary laser-focused zeal, but that barely contained craziness that’s threatened to derail his career in recent years leads to a couple of risqué moments that suggest he has a better understanding of what the joke of this film should have been as opposed to the one it’s half-heartedly trying to peddle. Baldwin too, who has become a real pleasure to watch on film since discovering his comedic side on TV’s 30 Rock, takes the film closer to the gonzo wig-out it should have been each time he pops up on screen (usually with Brand in tow). Alas, for large chunks of the film they’re peripheral to proceedings as Shankman focuses on establishing the rather dull relationship travails of small-town girl Sherrie (Hough) and her stage-fright-afflicted beau Drew (Boneta) as they each try to make it on the music scene. This being a musical, there are, naturally, many bends in the road to their inevitable success, but the diversion Sherrie takes into stripping is the most groan-inducing, especially as the film proceeds to perpetuate – via a bogus speech by Mary J Blige – the prevailing Hollywood myth that sliding up and down a pole for money is somehow empowering for women.
Dodgy sexual politics aside, the film mostly remains hampered by its karaoke-like need to have cast members belting out popular songs at regular intervals regardless of their narrative suitability. This curious development in the history of the musical has removed the need for skilled performers, composers and choreographers, reducing the form to something a semi-trained monkey could do. It’s no real surprise, then, when an actual baboon turns up in Rock of Ages as part of Stacee’s entourage. Indeed, it feels like a fairly desperate attempt to wring some meager laughs out of the film that aren’t forthcoming from the flatlining song-and-dance numbers. Speaking of which, among the horrors we get Cruise screeching his way through Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive; Catherine Zeta Jones’s Tipper Gore-esque politician’s wife sucking the fun out of music by murdering Pat Benetar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and Boneta and Hough doing a version of Extreme’s power ballad More Than Words that is, quite astonishingly, even worse than the original (which - sorry to be pedantic – wasn’t actually released until 1990, three years after this film’s 1987 setting).
Throughout, characters rhapsodize about rock never dying, but their earnestness is hard to swallow. Whereas Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure tapped into whatever merits this kind of music held at the time, Rock of Ages merely leaves you feeling thankful Nirvana came along when they did.
Rock of Ages (12A)
Directed by: Adam Shankman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough and Paul Giamatti
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