By Drew Turney
Like Judy Garland, The Village People and Kylie Minogue, the institution of the musical is a well-known gay icon today. The challenge then for Adam Shankman, the man behind the 2007 hit ”Hairspray”, was to bring in a wider audience.
Even the demographic who’ve adopted the musical as their own and the armies of women ages 40 and over who made Mamma Mia such a smash might not being enough for Rock Of Ages’ aims. Shankman and his writers (including Justin Theroux) seem to want the husbands of the ”Mamma Mia” crowd, and what better way to get them in the door than appeal to the rock of the late 80s, a scene that couldn’t be any more masculine despite the long hair and leather clothes.
It’s a good strategy – even if you weren’t a huge fan of Poison, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard et al, the influence of the style loomed large over the 80s and has ever since, giving ”Rock Of Ages” in-built recognition.
It’s a collection of simple stories all thrown together, shuffled and dealt out in turn. One is a simple boy meets girl tale, as beauty-queen-straight-off-the-bus type Julianne Hough meets busboy Diego Boneta and fall in love. Both have aspirations to make it in the music business, and there’s no better place to be than Sunset Strip in 1987, where the famous Bourbon Room (a nod to the Whisky a Go Go nightclub) gives tomorrow’s stars their chance.
Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are the mismatched club owners, finding their backs to the financial wall but not wanting the party to end. Catherine Zeta Jones is the firebrand wife of a mayoral candidate on a mission to cleanse the Strip of moral filth, but who hides a secret of her own.
And lording over them all is Tom Cruise as rock star Stacee Jaxx, a man who’s so famous and powerful he’s passed over from enigma into nonsensical. His entourage is a monkey, he sleeps under a human blanket of groupies and his conversation with Bourbon Room owner Dennis (Baldwin) is as funny as it is meaningless.
Cruise is actually the best thing in ”Rock Of Ages”, and Jaxx is another role that lets him do what he does best, inhabiting someone we don’t equate with his the glittering off-screen persona but which he pulls off perfectly. Jaxx is given his own character arc of self-discovery thanks to Malin Ackerman as a straight-talking Rolling Stone reporter, and the two share the raciest scene in the PG film.
If there’s a problem with ”Rock Of Ages” at all, it’s simply too crowded, both with characters and with music. It’s not that the characters’ plights are given short shrift – each one is quite simple. At times it simply feels like there are too many of them, leaving you wondering how many more people will appear to hang your hopes on.
For a musical about late 80s bands, it also – somewhat ironically – scrimps on music. Some time after Mamma Mia’s theatrical release, cinemas released it again for ‘sing-along’ screenings, smartly realising that (to ABBA fans) the movie was no more than playing their favourite old albums at top volume.
”Rock Of Ages” will never give fans of late 80s music the chance. In several cases, different characters sing two different songs at once, as if Shankman and his writers wanted to namecheck songs you’ll remember but decided they didn’t have the time to let you enjoy them.
There’s also a strange direction towards the end of the film where the story begins to explore the ridiculous boy band phenomenon that ushered glam rock out, but it’s more jarring than funny. Of everyone, Cruise comes off looking the smartest, and ”Rock Of Ages” is the sort of movie that makes you remember why movie studios pay him ten of millions to do what he does.
It’s foot tapping fun at times, though not as often as you’d like, sweet and appropriately gaudy.