I haven’t caught the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages” during one of my occasional visits to the Big Apple. Winner of the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical and still going strong after more than 1,200 performances, I have to wonder if the American filmgoing masses are going to embrace the heavy metal standards that over-populate this over-long, stiff screen adaptation. The play’s author, Chris D’Arienzo, joined by Justin “Tropic Thunder” Theroux and Allan Loeb, seldom inspire applause (or laughs) in adapting a love story set in a too-indulgent and seedy 1987 Los Angeles, as embodied by Tom Cruise’s boozy and toxically hedonistic rock star Stacee Jaxx. Jaxx is a bare-chested and (fleetingly) bare-assed cousin of Les Grossman, the obnoxious producer in “Thunder,” and Cruise helps raise the movie above its lowly foundation by hitting the right notes.
Adam Shankman, who directed the screen version of “Hairspray” with great aplumb, seems to have abandoned that film’s early 1960s goofiness in favor of a late 1980s cardboard, white-bread romance and multi-location, variant storyline editing (jarringly by Emma E. Hickox) within the many musical numbers. I was in need of a Dramamine after the first hour.
Fresh off the small town dance floor of last year’s “Footloose,” Julianne Hough is the pretty Oklahoma innocent with hoop earrings and cowboy boots plopped on the Sunset Strip, after a chorus of bus riders (and the driver) join her in singing “Just Like Paradise.” That’s the general approach–songs in a somewhat natural setting—when the tunes aren’t being presented on stage at the fictitious Bourbon Room, a dingy but legendary music club managed by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin in grubby, long-hair mode) and his assistant Lonny (Russell Brand, looking his normal self). It’s the place were Stacee first performed. City boy and barback Drew Boley is played by newcomer Diego Boneta. He’s got a fine face and a nice voice, but he and Hough can’t carry the film past its literary limitations or cookie-cutter love mashings.
“Rock of Ages” is populated with many familiar actors, most of them flitting in and out of the story (and most of the songs). Catherine Zeta-Jones is tedious and one-dimensional as the Anita Bryant-esque mayor’s wife, hell bent on cleaning up the city by dousing heavy metal’s future and tearing down the rock palace. Her church-set production of Pat Benatar’s top ten “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is a confined and poorly choreographed number. Paul Giamatti is the sleezy agent/greedy promoter who places his own agenda above those of his client and often gets the brunt of Jaxx’s pet monkey’s anger. Mary J. Blige is the manager (with a heart of gold, naturally) of the Venus Club for Gentlemen, a strip club. Malin Akerman is a be-spectacled journalist for ‘Rolling Stone’ whose schoolgirl costume belies her sensual nature. One of the sillier scenes has her pairing up with Cruise to perform “I Want to Know What Love Is” as they undress, PG-13 style, atop a pool table. SNL’s Will Forte appears briefly as a confused tv reporter (thankfully, not on the same table).
One duet of “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” mostly between Baldwin and Brand, was quite affectionate and funny in its staging, but it’s a highlight in a movie filled with lowlights. The recreation of the classic rock album retailer Tower Records brought back memories of the now-defunct chain, where lp’s sold for $9.44 in 1987.
I suspect the music, featuring hits by Def Leppard, Foreigner, Journey, Poison, REO Speedwagon, and Twisted Sister, will sell like hotcakes, but the two hours watching such a tepid and lip-synched effort is not a pleasant experience. Plenty of music bursts forth on the “Rock of Ages” soundtrack, but glam-rock–and the self-reflexive humor that apparently has made the original show such hit–are dealt a death blow. Watching paint dry would be time better spent.