Rock of Ages is pure camp, celebrating and lampooning the music that inspires it. 100% solid gold [cue music] power ballads, rock anthems, 80′s pop classic, all sent up, re-imagined and mashed together to embellish and empower the story of a country girl (Julianne Hough as Sherrie Christian) looking for her big break in LA as a rock star. The film lives somewhere between Grease (1978), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986). Rock of Ages is big and outlandish, embracing its decade of choice by bringing together its music with a modern pop sensibility, for better or worse; sometimes fresh, sometimes not so much. Rock of Ages not only draws inspiration from the source material, both the play and the music, and from the director’s vision (see his previous musical, Hairspray) but from current American pop twist drawing inspiration from modern TV spectacles like Glee and American Idol. This seems fitting given that the film’s leads, Sherrie and Drew, are dreaming to make it big just as Rachel Berry, Kurt Hummel, Kelly Clarkson or Adam Lambert are in the public eye both fictitiously and in real life. In the future world of Rock of Ages, Drew would certainly end up on an MTV reality show and Sherrie would flop on Celebrity Apprentice while Stacee Jaxx would end up falling off the stage at an award show or refusing to accept his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rock of Ages is frivolous, it embraces a silly time in music history and has a grandiose and joyfully pretentious time with the music, the images and the excess. It treats the story, the characters and the music in much the same way. The film is only interested in having a good time and paints that rapture on the screen in the simplest and most direct way possible, with the music.
Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are at the heart of Rock of Age’s story (but not its soul, that belongs to Cruise) as Sherrie and Drew, the two naive, young upstarts looking to become rock stars themselves. Boneta’s Drew doesn’t merely idolize Stacee Jaxx, he want to be Stacee Jaxx; but he finds, much like Jaxx secretly fears, that the times are changing and the opportunity for stars like Jaxx to rise to the top is at its end. When he begins to fulfill his dreams, his manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) pushes him toward the next big craze, boy bands. To stay true to himself may mean sacrificing his dream. Hough’s Sherrie has a much tougher time at it, letting her heart get in the way. Her motherly mentor, Justice Charlier (Mary J. Blige), suggests she came to Hollywood not find stardom but to find love. Hough and Boneta both embody these characters at that core definition and bring little else to their roles. Of the cast, it’s Alec Baldwin and Russel Brand who step up to stand out among them with their buddy-buddy narrative spin. Brand displays a sly experience and a youthful innocence to Lonny and manages to capture the spirit of the film effortlessly. Ironically, they possess more sexual tension than either Sherrie and Drew or Stacee and Constance (Malin Akerman).
Director Adam Shankman likes to give big name Hollywood actors the opportunity to have fun on screen in outlandish roles, playing characters not immediately associated with their stereotype or expectations. Much like the director did with John Travolta in his film Hairspray, Shankman does this by casting Tom Cruise against type as Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. Jaxx is a rock-god at the height of his career, adorned and idolized by millions, untouchable and out of touch. Cruise embraces his character giving an inspired performance as entertaining and over-the-top as his Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. The high profile actor has a blast satirizing not only the embodiment of 80′s rock icons but his own public persona as well. From his daring, hilarious entrance as Jaxx crawls out from under a sea of passed-out groupies wearing ass-less chaps and a tacky cod piece, Cruise takes control of the film. He instantly holds the audience in the palm of his hand much as he does every female characters…uh…heart in the movie itself. His character is lost in his own hype and the public’s expectations of him; he’s searching for a renewed inspiration to reignite his passion for music, his career and his heart. He looks for that spark in the other characters in the film: Constance Sack, the Rolling Stone reporter who steals his heart; Sherrie and Drew, the naive but talented upstarts who with either threaten his career or propel it; and, Dennis Dupree, the club owner who gave Jaxx his start and still fights for the music he believes in giving Jaxx reason to “give until it hurts.” As far removed from any reasonably normal audience member, Stacee Jaxx somehow also represents their view into this wacky world as envisioned by Shankman. The film is all show and Stacee Jaxx is the film’s greatest showman. Tom Cruise brilliantly gives life to that role and to that purpose, to entertain, to mystify, to captivate, to electrify. Shankman’s version of Rock of Ages could have easily been called The World According to Stacee Jaxx.
Much of the success of Rock of Ages lies in how the audience accepts the interpretations and mash-ups of classic Eighties jukebox hits: “Here I Go Again”, “Juke Box Hero”, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Wanted Dead or Alive”. The entire cast is in on the fun with Hough, Boneta, and Cruise headlining the hits while Baldwin, Brand, Akerman, and even Giamatti get their turns. The results range from awkward karaoke to pure genius. Somewhere Simon Cowell is having a field day. The movie starts with “Sister Christian” and ends with “Don’t Stop Believing” sending up hit after hit in between. Tom Cruise is the biggest surprise displaying a commitment to the music both in song and on screen providing winning numbers like “Paradise City” and “I Want to Know What Love Is”. The entire soundtrack is a running list of superficial rock hit after over-orchestrated rock ballad. Absolutely splendid and unapologetic.
Rock of Ages is this year’s, maybe this decade’s, grandest guilty pleasure – deliciously dumb, delightfully misguided and miraculously held together by fond memories of a younger time & age and the sensational performance by Tom Cruise as the Stacee Jaxx. The film’s soundtrack seasons its hits from its bygone age with sprinkles of modern day American Idol/Glee musical mash-ups where Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City [On Rock & Roll]” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It” can sit comfortably, effortlessly side-by-side within the same performance. It’s an age where Dee Snyder stars in a Stanley Steamer commercial in full garb and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler guides young pop stars on American Idol with his bleeped out f- bombs serving as family entertainment. Everything is sanitized and divided into easy to digest portions; Rock of Ages is a glorious example of this mentality in film form. From this perspective Shankman’s manic musical is deliriously perfect – light on plot, requiring little investment and slipping in and out of rock performance and musical montages like a series a strung together videos from the heyday of the MTV generation. Taken too seriously, Rock of Ages falls flat in its overinflated face; however, with tongue planted firmly in cheek with a side-order of whimsy, the film is a flirty festival of frivolous fun, ready to serve up hokey and hammy versions of rock classics from a decade where the invention of rock idols was far more mysterious and enigmatic.