By the end of “Rock of Ages" — at which the point the audience has been subjected to two hours of Reagan-era pop hits recorded in a way that makes Kidz Bop sound like “Glee” and “Glee” sound like GWAR — the idea of a mere trio of original tunes sounds like a slice of heaven.
In its transition from an intimate and partially tongue-in-cheek L.A. theater piece to Broadway show to bloated all-star cinematic extravaganza, “Rock of Ages” has traded in whatever sense of humor it might have once had about itself and its roster of melodramatic power ballads (they might as well have called it “Stadium Rock of Ages”) for an overblown aimlessness.
By the time Debbie Gibson and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach are standing shoulder to shoulder and belting out Starship’s “We Built This City” without a smidge of irony, one begins to wonder it “Rock of Ages” even gets its own joke.
The plot, which feels cobbled together from stray bits of “Burlesque” and “The Apple,” revolves around Oklahoma gal Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), who comes to Los Angeles in 1987 to pursue her rock-and-roll dreams. Within her first hour in town, she gets mugged, and she meets Drew, who gets her a job at Sunset Strip rock palace the Bourbon Room, run by Dennis and manager Lonny (Russell Brand).
Despite the club’s legendary status, the place is on the verge of bankruptcy, a situation that can be avoided with an appearance by the legendary, Axl Rose–like Stacee, who’s so out of it that he arrives on time only when his oily manager Paul (Paul Giamatti) tells him the gig was actually set for the night before. But Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of L.A.’s new mayor (Bryan Cranston), has focused on Stacee as part of her campaign to save the Sunset Strip from the devil’s music once and for all.
Watch video: Mary J. Blige Busts Out the Journey in 'Rock of Ages' Clip
Oh, that something Satanic might actually have crawled into “Rock of Ages” at some point. When Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, she wasn’t gunning for Quarterflash and REO Speedwagon, just two of the white-bread bands whose songs are featured here. It’s akin to making a movie about people trying to suppress gangsta rap, and then filling the soundtrack with cuts by PM Dawn and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
Whether you have fond memories of songs like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” or you’re inclined to change stations when they pop up on the radio, the karaoke versions offered up by “Rock of Ages” are ear-punishers. The film’s thudding literalism doesn’t help, either; when someone sings about standing on a corner in the rain/”>rain, you can just bet that they’ll be singing that line on a corner. In the rain/”>rain.
Even when the movie unleashes a real singer like Mary J. Blige, her powerhouse voice gets mostly swallowed up by the bland back-up chorus and the stultifying orchestrations that bludgeon everything into a patina of silky-smooth nothing.
“Rock of Ages” takes place in the final days when bands like Foreigner and Def Leppard could still dominate the charts. (Apart from one passing reference to rap, the ascendance of hip-hop is invisible here.) It’s a movie that passes off mainstream pop as being somehow dangerous, reaching its crescendo at the end when, after rejecting a New Kids–ish boy band, “Rock of Ages” delivers its thunderous climax with … Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a song that’s been so castrated by pop culture that it’s a grade-school sing-along.
As for the acting, it’s a very mixed bag that mostly disappoints. Hough’s charms were enough to get her through the “Footloose” remake, even if she was no challenge to Lori Singer, but here she’s just vapid and unengaging, as is her co-star Boneta. Baldwin and Zeta-Jones overplay with the gusto of Royal Shakespeare actors doing Christmastime panto, while Malin Akerman (as a Rolling Stone reporter) and Giamatti find some of the film’s few comic notes. Brand, naturally, gets the dissipation and the head-banging just right.
Tom Cruise — who, to his credit, is probably one of the few people on earth who can imagine first-hand what it was like to be Axl Rose in 1987 — plays it unapologetically weird and eccentric, but he plays the same note of weird and eccentric throughout. Once his Stacee Jaxx gets onstage, though, Cruise’s charisma bleeds over into the music world, making the actor look completely believable as a Dionysus with a Marshall stack.
The only jolts of actual rock-and-roll danger in “Rock of Ages” come from Cruise, and from Mickey, the primate who steals his scenes as Stacee’s mandrill sidekick. The rest of it is a dreary costume party packed with people you wish would just stop singing already.