When I told an acquaintance I was going to see Rock of Ages, he said, "I feel so sorry for you," to which his girlfriend replied, "Oh, I don't think it will be that bad." Expect that conversation to be replayed all summer in theaters across the land. Adapted from the hit Broadway play, Rock of Ages is the latest movie musical to plunder the back pages of classic rock, and this time the focus group feeling the pain is former '80s metal dudes, who get to hear the arena-rock anthems, hair-metal headbangers and tender power ballads they grew up with overhauled into — gasp! — showtunes for their significant others.
Set in Los Angeles circa 1987, Rock is like your middle-aged aunt's view of Reagan-era El Lay, forged mostly from wide-eyed cable-TV viewings of Less Than Zero back in her impressionable years. It certainly starts as some teenage dream, with wholesome, rosy-cheeked Oklahoma girl Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough, aka Seacrest's woman) getting off a bus in the SoCal jungle after singing a few bars of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" (geddit?). An aspiring singer, she gets a job at Sunset Strip club The Bourbon Room after one of the barbacks (Mexican-soap heartthrob-turned-teen-soap heartthrob Diego Boneta) sees her mugged. The two immediately start a whirlwind romance, which basically consists of singing Journey and Foreigner songs to each other.
Their gooey-ass love story is one of many subplots padding out this two-hour-plus cheesefest. The city's philandering, grandstanding mayor (an underused Bryan Cranston) and his Tipper Gore-ish wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones — where the hell has she been?) target The Bourbon Room as the root of all civic evil, threatening to shut it down. Since The Room is already in dire straits — that's not a pun, alas: You don't hear "Money for Nothing" in this thing — owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin, mostly wearing mom jeans) calls in a favor and gets egocentric rock star Stacee Jaxx (an entertainingly boozy/woozy Tom Cruise) to perform a blowout concert that'll get the crowds in.
As when he adapted the Broadway musical version of Hairspray to the big screen, director Adam Shankman stuffs this movie to the point where digesting it all may make audiences feel bloated and tired. We haven't even gotten to Paul Giamatti as Jaxx's skeevy, shitty ponytail-wearing manager, Russell Brand as Dupree's secret-harboring right-hand man, Malin Akerman as the world's least believable Rolling Stone reporter and Mary J. Blige as the resident Wise Black Lady. There is a whole lotta crap going on in Rock, all of it set to your favorite tunes of the '80s. (Jesus, I sound like the voice-over guy from a K-Tel commercial.) It seems like there's a big, relentless musical number every two minutes.
The crazy part is most of the story doesn't even appear in Chris D'Arienzo's stage play. While D'Arienzo had a hand in writing the script, screenwriters Justin Theroux (Iron Man 2) and Allan Loeb (Just Go With It) are most likely responsible for rearranging the storyline, making the movie more cute and schmaltzy than the tongue-in-cheek, self-reflexive ride the play was. The movie throws out old characters and creates new ones, revises existing characters (in the play, Cruise's Jaxx was less of a lost soul and more of a full-fledged douchebag) and even revamps the whole damn ending.
As with the ABBA-ganza Mamma Mia!, though, Rock exists merely to showcase some of your favorite stars (and Russell Brand) belting out rock tunes. Some do them earnestly (Hough and Boneta are so syrupy-sweet together, they made my teeth rot), while others get their rock-god on (I never thought I'd see Cruise get all slithery onstage, but he does it well). And there are those who sing primarily for comic effect — we wouldn't dream of spoiling who duets on REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling."
Soon to be in the company of such ill-made, so-bad-it's-bad musicals as The Apple and Can't Stop the Music, eventually hitting the midnight-movie circuit so hipsters can make fun of it, Rock of Ages is basically two hours-and-change of superstars singing karaoke. If anyone wants to see that, tell 'em to park their ass in front of the TV and watch the oodles of singing-competition shows flooding primetime.
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