Rock of Ages, the Tony-nominated musical, is a saccharine valentine to big dumb loud rock music. Rock of Ages, the movie adapted from the Broadway musical, is the unintentional death knell to that music—known at the time, and for good reason, as cheese metal (Poison and Twisted Sister, etc., along with a Bon Jovi anthem or two). Though the sight of Tom Cruise rising from a den of inequity wearing a jeweled death’s head codpiece (and little else) is almost worth enduring a rendition of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” the bombastic inanity of the songs’ framing makes this big dumb loud movie damn near intolerable. Even Mary J. Blige (as a strip club owner) can’t inject any real musicality into the DOA Velveeta of the plot.
It’s a jukebox musical, so not much narrative is required, yet Shankman has padded it to insensibility with filler concerning the star-crossed relationship between Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a naïf from the Midwest who arrives at the Sunset Strip with starry-eyed dreams of becoming a singer, and squeaky-clean musician Drew (newbie Diego Boneta), who works at the Bourbon Room (aka the Whiskey a Go Go). They fall in love. They have a misunderstanding. Torn apart by crossed signals (sanitized from the Broadway version), they descend into the quagmire of many a failed rocker in L.A. (though making more money than ever before, she as a stripper, he has a vocalist in a boy band). To compare the characters to cardboard cut-outs is in an insult to cardboard.
The exception is Cruise as decadent rock superstar Stacee Jaxx: His method-acting impersonation of Axl Rose is actually compelling, especially how he revels in Stacee’s rank sexuality and booze-fueled profundity (Alec Baldwin as the Bourbon’s burned-out owner and Paul Giamatti as a sleazy manager are less effective). But Stacee’s every scene is so drawn out that it flattens the impersonation’s cheap thrills.
Director Adam Shankman’s resume ranges from TV (including, noticeably, episodes of Glee, apparently his only inspiration for this retread) to treacley movies and the musical movie version of Hairspray. Yet he has a substantial background in choreography, which makes him just good enough to give the horrible dance sequences the mechanics of professionalism (in other words, they are not laugh-out-loud bad, unfortunately). Particularly strained and desperate is Catherine Zeta-Jones as a politician’s wife (think Tipper Gore) who wants to clean up the Strip. Her big dance number, cleverly set in a church with an ensemble of PTA wives, is an embarrassment compared to her sultry hoofing in Chicago.
There are a few lines of amusing banter here and there (undoubtedly courtesy of co-scripter Justin Theroux, who penned Cruise’s comedic breakthrough, Tropic Thunder), but not enough to even begin to compensate for the blandness of the leads and their dull predicaments. Rock & roll and rock stars are about spontaneity. These caricatures are so clichéd they might as well be embalmed.