Few directors could pull off the subtle irony and the profane humor of Tom Cruise, as rock god Stacee Jaxx, crooning a gentle ballad about wanting to know what love is to Malin Ackerman’s buttocks, but Adam Shankman can and does. ROCK OF AGES is a perfect blend of just those elements, the irony and humor, that is, though Ackerman’s buttocks, and Cruise’s abs, and Julianne Hough’s cleavage, and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ legs, and Diego Boneta’s pouty lips all figure into it as well. It’s a candy-coated paean to rock and roll, as well as the classic boy-meets-girl musical that Judy and Mickey populated in a more innocent time.
Innocence, though, is never far from the proceedings here. Hough and Boneta are the innocents negotiating the sinister world of show biz in 1987 Los Angeles. She’s fresh from the heartland hoping to make it big as a singer. He’s works the bar at The Bourbon Room, the happeningest place for rock & roll on the Sunset Strip. They are destined for each other and greater things, of course, but first there has to be the inevitable misunderstandings, the degradation of selling out, visits with colorful supporting characters, and then the final rousing anthem as the credits roll.
Based on the stage play of the same name by Chris D’Arienzo, the film opens up the story to include the Strip itself, and to include a few more songs from the era in question. That would include Boneta, cute as a bug’s ear and credible when belting out hard rock, being equally good when singing “Juke Box Hero” in the aisles at Tower Records. He better be, Mary J. Blige, belts out two songs later in the film that tear up the screen while tearing down the house as the sympathetic owner of a strip club. As for Hough, she trills along with a voice that sounds like a bubble-gum giggle, and is underused when it comes to the splashy yet clever choreography by Mia Michaels that finds, among other things, a novel syncopation in the platform shoes worn by a bevy of pole dancers. That and Shankman’s keen understanding of how to photograph the dancing, be it production numbers or moments of spontaneous fluidity that advance the story, infuse the film with much of its energy.
The rest of that energy comes from the cast in varying degrees. A grizzled Alec Baldwin, as the financially troubled owner of The Bourbon Room, and rooster-haired Russell Brand as his factotum, steal the show with their blend of urbane and wry wit mixed with a surprisingly sentimental side. Paul Giamatti takes the venal manager and turns him into a pudding pop of pure evil, while Zeta-Jones as the high-kicking crusader against the evils of rock & roll, and of Jaxx in particular, hits exactly the right absurdist note of buttoned-up hypocrisy to husband Bryan Cranston’s unbuttoned political hypocrisy. The rest of the cast is equally adept, at times showing a lovely nuance, even the baboon charged with being Jaxx’s expensively coutured pet and alter-ego. Only Cruise comes close to missing the boat as the addled narcissist living in his own very special universe. His singing voice is fine and his physique beneath he suggestive tattoos and, in one scene, the bejeweled codpiece, is a marvel of what personal trainers, nutritionists, and sheer force of will can craft from a fifty-year-old body, but Cruise takes the proceedings far too seriously and it almost trips up both him and the film. Fortunately, his other nemesis, Ackerman, as the Rolling Stone reporter with a penchant for telling the truth and a charmingly hormonal rush when confronted with Jaxx’s, ahem, belt buckle, affords him a nice balance.
Eschewing pretensions and embracing the silliness of the premise, while never for a minute giving short shrift to the dancing or singing, ROCK OF AGES bills itself as nothing but a good time. And that it is.