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Rock of Ages, the new musical from director Adam Shankman, is overdone and chock full of dumb, but if approached with the proper mindset it could end up being one of the better surprises of the summer.
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, the movie is set in the mid-80s and follows the events and characters in and around The Bourbon Room, Los Angeles’ most iconic rock club. At the center of it all are young aspiring singers Drew and Sherrie (Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough), but there's also the club’s owner (Alec Baldwin) and his assistant (Russell Brand) who are trying to keep their business afloat, a politician’s vindictive wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who wants to see The Bourbon Room closed for good, and an out-of-control rock star named Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) who gets stuck doing an unwanted interview with a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman).
Rock of Ages knows it’s not a very good movie and uses it to its advantage. Though he never overtly parodies the setting, Shankman recognizes what a strange time in history the 80s were and shows it through an unfiltered light that encapsulates the fun and wild times of the period, but also shows how silly the decade was, filled to the brim with shoulder pads and hairspray. The side plots even operate to try and capture the entirety of the decade, from Zeta-Jones’ Tipper Gore-esque hatred of profane music to the…let’s say “intimate” relationship between Baldwin and Brand. Every musical performance, from Boneta’s version of “Jukebox Hero” in a Tower Records to Cruise’s “Dead or Alive” in a concert scene, overplays its hand trying to be pure spectacle, but Shankman’s approach to tone and style keeps everything reined in. If the film took itself seriously at all it would have been an unmitigated disaster, but the director is able to fill the story with just enough self-awareness that the tripe turns into camp and allows you to just take the ride.
And who knew that Tom Cruise, at 49, could pull off being a rock star so effortlessly? A manifestation of pure id, Stacee Jaxx is over the top in every way, but Cruise’s charisma more than compensates and it’s endlessly fun to watch him explore the character. Whether he’s groping every woman he meets, hanging out with his baboon, Hey Man, chilling in ass-less chaps with a bunch of groupies, or singing “I Wanna Know What Love Is” into Malin Akerman’s ass (yes, this actually happens), Cruise evinces the 80s rock spirit perfectly and disappears into the part. The problem is that it practically mutes everything else and it becomes clear that Shankman and writers Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo have buried the lede. While Hough and Boneta aren’t by any means bad in the movie, they are simply outmatched and overshadowed by Cruise, who makes the love story at the heart of the film seem trite.
Clocking in at over 123 minutes, Rock of Ages has both not enough story and far too many musical numbers. Shankman somehow manages to stuff renditions of Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise” and Poison’s “Nothin’ But A Good Time” into the span of the first 10 minutes, immediately letting the audience know what they’re in for, but it doesn’t make the experience any easier. After it hits the point of diminishing returns you’re just thinking about the writers assigning songs that kinda-sorta sync up with the characters’ emotional state. But non-musicals can’t get away with having a character explain all of their feelings in three minute blocks and Rock of Ages doesn’t get away with it either.
There’s a very good chance that Rock of Ages will end up being one of the most divisive films of the summer and on some level both sides will be right. The movie doesn’t have any larger ambition beyond being a good time and it is just that. If you walk into a screening expecting to see a terrible movie chances are that you’ll walk away with predictions confirmed, but if you watch it with enough tolerance, patience, and open-mindedness, however, you might actually find yourself having some fun rocking out 80s style. Being someone who is a fan of being entertained at the movies, I personally recommend the latter.