Movie review: Rock of Ages

“Rock of Ages” is as interesting and culturally diverse as Wonder Bread — though slightly more tasteful

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY Times news service, New York

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 - Page 12

Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical turned junky big-screen attraction about making it in the music biz back when it still existed, is just entertaining enough to keep you from dark thoughts about the state of Hollywood. The movie is too insipid for such hand wringing, in any event, and the attention-grabbing turns by Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and especially Tom Cruise as a rock-star crazy help enliven its overlong two hours. All singing, some dancing, the movie brings to mind Glee, but its truer, superior progenitor is that 1933 Cinderella story, 42nd Street, the one in which the producer tells the chorine, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”

The chorines this time around are Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), who early on meet cute on the Sunset Strip, that asphalt ribbon distinguished by its clubs, eateries, high hopes, low prospects and celebrity deaths that winds through West Hollywood. She’s a little bit country, newly arrived from Flyover, USA; he’s a little bit hair-metal, with a menial gig at the Bourbon Room and dreams of guitar-rock divinity. The make-believe Bourbon sits next to the Whisky a Go Go although in reality it and the rest of the conspicuously faked Strip were shot in a tricked-out neighborhood in Miami. Mostly, though, the whole thing rests on a, er, bedrock of cliches from Hollywood’s favorite genre: movies about itself.

Rock of Ages, directed by the former dancer and choreographer Adam Shankman, is based on a musical — nicely described by Lina Lecaro, a Los Angeles scenester, as a “headbangin’-to-the-oldies revue” — that originated in a Hollywood club in 2005 and eventually migrated to Broadway, where it continues to pull in fans at the Helen Hayes. (Shankman directed the 2007 movie Hairspray, which was based on the Broadway musical that was, in another testament to entertainment industry self-cannibalization, based on the 1988 John Waters film.) Like the musical, the movie Rock of Ages is set in 1987, the year that Appetite for Destruction, the first album from Guns N’ Roses, and Tipper Gore’s book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, both hit the cultural fray.

Written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the original show) and Allan Loeb, the movie resurrects these two forgotten events through a pair of opponents: an Axl Rose-like rocker, Stacee Jaxx, played with uncharacteristic heat and an undulating bare torso by Cruise, and a crusading neo-Puritan, Patricia Whitmore, energetically embodied by an underused Catherine Zeta-Jones. Whitmore has vowed, as part of the campaign to have her husband, Mike (Bryan Cranston), elected mayor, to clean up the Strip. In actuality it was Prince’s album Purple Rain that triggered Gore’s outrage over rock ’n’ raunch, an indignation that led to the Parents Music Resource Center, Senate hearings about dirty minds and government regulation, and eventually her wider pop-cultural attacks. Bringing in Prince would have made the movie listenable, but it would have complicated its white-bread world.

That’s less a reference to the picture’s homogeneous racial and ethnic makeup, which debatably reflects that of the music milieu it seeks to replicate. (Mary J. Blige, as Justice, the owner of a strip club, and the character actor Angelo Donato Valderrama, as a club busboy named Chico, are among the movie’s few tokens of diversity.) Rather, this Wonder Bread banality comes from how thoroughly Shankman has vacuumed his rock-scene simulacrum of anything recognizably rock, including the lust, juice, heat, bad behavior and excesses that characterize its real-life analogue. There isn’t any grit to these people or their art, not a speck of dirt anywhere. It looks like Disneyland and sounds, well, like a bad Broadway musical, with all the power belting and jazz-hand choreography that implies.

To put it another way, there’s way too much Journey on the soundtrack, and Foreigner. There’s also an REO Speedwagon ditty, a few from Twisted Sister, Def Leppard and Poison, and at least two hits that were released after 1987 (More Than Words and I Remember You). All the songs are sung, mostly without shame or distinction, by the actors themselves, who slide into the warbling as if into a conversation. A grizzled, bewigged Baldwin enunciates through his songs, in the Rex Harrison mold, to play a rock survivor, Dennis Dupree, who runs the Bourbon with his sidekick, Lonny (Brand). They make their stale buddy routine and romance amusing and, as with the rest of the adults, make the movie bearable. A whispering and writhing Cruise makes it watchable.