"Rock of Ages," a rock musical based on 1980s hair bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, Foreigner, Def Leppard and others, is a tricky film to review. Its central plot and lead characters are sleep inducingly dull, but they are surrounded by a supporting cast of interesting and colorful characters who help raise the film to a guilty pleasure status.
To call the film good would take a rewriting of the definition of that word, but "Rock of Ages" does have certain charms, chiefly a stellar performance by Tom Cruise as the fictional rocker Stacee Jaxx.
Cruise nails the rock star swagger, smarminess and ego. He trained extensively to be able to do his own singing, and the efforts pay off as he credibly belts out songs like "Wanted: Dead or Alive." It is quite a performance that is believable and funny. In a departure from the stage version, the character is given more dimension and growth, allowing Cruise to add unexpected shadings.
The problem is Cruise is not the main character, but rather a supporting character, who is off-screen for too much of the film. Instead we have a tired story of a small town girl (Julianne Hough) taking a bus to Hollywood to follow her dream to become a singer.
Within five minutes of being in Los Angeles she is mugged. Within 10 minutes she meets her love interest (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the rock club the Bourbon Room. Clearly, things happen fast in L.A. What follows is a generic love story in which the couple breaks up over a misunderstanding and then gets back together to sing "Don't Stop Believing" in the climatic ending.
By removing characters and adding new ones and changing plot details, the film actually improves upon the stage version of "Rock of Ages," but that speaks more about the quality of stage version than the film. The script by Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb working with Chris D'Arienzo, the author of stage version, doesn't go far enough in making this more than just a serviceable plot to string a series of unrelated songs together.
It would've taken a complete rewrite to make this something truly engaging. That being said, Theroux and Loeb's additions keep "Rock of Ages" from being a complete waste. There's a lot of entertaining stuff happening on the fringes of the film.
Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a new character seemingly tailored after Tipper Gore, who in 1985 went before Congress to urge warning labels for records marketed to children. Zeta-Jones, the wife of a mayor, sets out to clean up Sunset Strip by shutting down the Bourbon Room much to the chagrin of club owner Alec Baldwin and his right-hand man, Russell Brand.
Zeta-Jones is great fun in the role, and her rendition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" is one of the movie's highlights. She also leads a version of "We're Not Going to Take It" pitted against a Russell Brand-led version of "We Built This City" that is one of the better moments in the movie.
Baldwin and Brand get some of the best lines in the film. They have an amusing dynamic and have great, loose energy singing together on "I Love Rock and Roll" and "I Can't Fight This Feeling."
Paul Giamatti is also fantastic as Stacee Jaxx's sleazy manager. This is the kind of role Giamatti does best and he's clearly enjoying being big, hammy and over-the-top. He even sings a bit too, and isn't half bad.
Zeta-Jones along with Mary J. Blige, as the owner of a strip club, are easily the best singers of the cast followed closely by Brand and, surprisingly, Cruise. Unfortunately, their vocals aren't spotlighted enough. Instead, Hough and Boneta sing the vast majority of the songs and they simply don't cut it.
Hough's voice has the strength to belt out the more powerhouse songs, but she is annoyingly high pitched. Boneta fares better, but his vocals lack personality. This may not even be entirely their fault as there seems to be heavy post-production polishing and sterilizing. Even Cruise's vocals come across too clean. It would've been nice to hear some imperfections.
Director Adam Shankman, who previously helmed the big-screen adaptation of "Hairspray," keeps things too sunny and focuses too much on that oh-so-boring love story.
This is supposed to be a light musical, so I'm not expecting soul searching from the characters, but every moment between Hough and Boneta is a cliche. We are given no reason to care about these characters.
A better director might have steered away from the lesser material to focus on the funnier and more compelling performances of Cruise, Baldwin, Brand, Zeta-Jones and Giamatti. It'll be a great movie to have on DVD where there is easy access to the skip button.