Starring Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin. Written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb. Directed by Adam Shankman. 122 minutes. PG. Opens June 15.
During the first few scenes in and around The Bourbon Room—the fictional Hollywood Strip hair-metal bar that serves as the heart, soul, and setting of Rock of Ages—a band by the name of Jet Boy appears on the marquee and a few gig posters. It’s a small detail: the real Jetboy being essentially a B-league band from the Strip’s mid-’80s heyday whose bassist ended up dying in Slash’s hotel room. But it’s one of the many things that Rock of Ages gets right about L.A. circa 1987.
Adapted from the flimsy, nostalgia-baiting Broadway musical and directed by populist entertainment master Adam Shankman, the big screen version vastly improves on its source material. (Which, admittedly, isn’t hard to do, since the original is really just an extended vehicle for the song “Don’t Stop Believin.’”) The story of Sherrie (Julianne Hough, playing a small-town girl living in a lonely world), whose arrival in L.A. delivers her straight into the world of the Bourbon Room thanks to barback/aspiring rocker Drew (Diego Bonetta, a.k.a. the city boy raised in South Detroit), gets padded out with several far better subplots. More importantly, the whole thing is injected with A-list star power: Catherine Zeta Jones plays a Tipper Gore-type conservative zealot out to eradicate the devil music from the Strip, Alec Baldwin wears the aging-rocker look well as the bar’s lovably scuzzy owner, and Tom Cruise delivers a thinly-veiled and insanely note-perfect variation on Axl Rose at the peak of illusion-using rock star excess.
Despite its enhancements, Rock of Ages still suffers from weak storytelling, a momentum that simply steamrolls from one scene to the next, and more than a few instances where the actors’ spoken scenes are far more animated than the musical numbers. As a musical-on-film, however, it’s one of the better recent offerings, mainly because it absolutely refuses to take itself seriously. There are numerous sight gags, like Drew taking a leak while singing “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and an extended foray into boy-band-dom. Plus Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx brings the lion’s share of the weirdness in some seriously unhinged scenes alongside both Baldwin’s Dennis Dupree and Paul Giamatti as Jaxx’s skeezy manager.
Like the Poison song featured early in the film, Rock of Ages is most definitely for people who “ain’t looking for nothin’ but a good time.” And in that respect it delivers. It’s just too bad that the seedy underbelly of hair-metal is more or less glossed over, because there could have been some serious dramatic tension in a musical-theatre version of that scene from Decline of Western Civilization where W.A.S.P. singer Chris Holmes downs an entire bottle of vodka while floating in a pool. Don’t stop believin’ indeed.