Like Tab and Pop Rocks

‘Rock of Ages’ likely to strike a chord with viewers of a certain age
by Willie Krischke
Dig out the leg warmers and bangles. Buy a giant can of hairspray and some scrunchies. Guys, remind yourselves how to apply eyeliner and squeeze into those leather pants. It’s time for another ‘80s party, this one hosted by Tom Cruise and the all-star cast of “Rock of Ages.”

In a long-awaited and much talked-about performance, Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, a mega-superstar hair rocker sometime during the Reagan administration. His final show at the legendary Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip provides the centerpiece for the film, but the story isn’t really about him – it’s about a wide-eyed girl from Oklahoma (country music star Julianne Hough, of “Dancing With the Stars” fame) who follows her dreams to the City of Lights, falls in love with budding rock star (Diego Boneta, who looks like he belongs in a boy band, and will find himself in one, before the film’s over.)  Just before everything can go right for them, a chance encounter with Cruise leads to a huge misunderstanding that will need to be resolved by a big musical number before the film ends.

 But their love story isn’t the only thing going on in “Rock of Ages.” Alec Baldwin plays the owner of the Bourbon Club, which seems one undersold show away from bankruptcy. Paul Giamatti, wearing a terrible ponytail, plays Cruise’s manager, whose lack of ethics helps to put the club under; this is another tension that will need to be resolved by a heroic act before the movie can end. Russell Brand steals scenes as Baldwin’s right hand man; Brand basically plays the same character he plays in every movie I’ve ever seen him in, but it’s a perfect fit for “Rock of Ages.” Unlike Cruise and Baldwin, who are having fun but seem a bit afraid to act too ridiculous, Brand chews scenery with relish, and every scene with him in it is better than the one before or after it. The funniest scene in the movie is an unlikely duet between Baldwin and Brand, a scene that ends in a big manly kiss.  

Meanwhile, Cruise flirts with a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Ackerman, who looks like a cross between Pamela Anderson and Reporter Barbie) who just might be the long lost soul mate he’s been looking for all these years. I found Cruise’s performance a little bit disappointing; he’s great when he’s on stage, and rocks the rockers. But offstage, I was hoping for a bit more of the over-the-top Cruise who was so funny in “Tropic Thunder,” but he keeps his cool, most of the time seeming in a drug-and-alcohol induced haze and uttering nonsensical proverbs. He’s more Jim Morrison than Axl Rose. Axl Rose is way funnier.

There’s also Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bryan Cranston, churchy politicians determined to shut down the Bourbon before any more teen-agers eat the heads of their neighbors’ horses. This storyline really goes nowhere, and the reveal at the end was obvious from the beginning. Also, Mary J. Blige randomly pops up near the end as a matronly strip club owner who takes Hough under her wing when she’s fallen on hard times – and then puts her on the stage with the pole. Both of these characters seemed unnecessary to me. “Rock of Ages” clocks in at 123 minutes, which is terribly long for a cheesy musical comedy like this, and director Adam Shankman might’ve been wise to leave these pieces on the cutting room floor. But they do provide opportunities for characters to sing terrible ‘80s hair rock anthems, and that’s what “Rock of Ages” is all about.

The soundtrack studiously avoids anything that might be honestly considered a “good” song; it’s heavy on Foreigner and Twisted Sister but avoids Springsteen, U2 and Metallica like the plague.  Perhaps because a lot of songs by those bands contain an edge of melancholy and restlessness, and “Rock of Ages” wants to keep it happy, reveling in the crazy excess, bad taste and overall decadence of the ’80s. The whole point is to evoke a very particular time and attitude; anything even remotely timeless would defeat that point. Indeed, aside from a few showstoppers, the tunes seemed to me to be chosen so that you’ll remember hearing it on the radio 30 years ago, but not who sang it. (Does anybody still own a Quarterflash record?)  

From a cinematic standpoint, there is nothing redeeming or even interesting about “Rock of Ages.”  It’s an old, rehashed plot, played as broad as possible. The leads are bright-faced but shallow.  Sometimes there’s too much talking between the songs; if you’re going to say something stupid, clichéd and shallow, it’s best to follow it with a shredding guitar solo.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go see it. The filmmakers aren’t trying to win awards here, they’re trying to entertain and make you laugh, and “Rock of Ages” succeeds on that level.  Like dressing up and going to an ‘80s party, or belting these songs heart and soul at a karaoke bar, it’s trafficking in a kind of nostalgia that makes you laugh at how ridiculous the things we used to like turned out to be. There’s not a thing about “Rock of Ages” that ought to be taken seriously, and that’s completely on purpose.  

This poses a demographic problem for the film; I can’t see anyone born after 1985 really getting more than a vicarious laugh out of it, and that’s a huge chunk of the population who buys movie tickets; this might explain why “Madagascar 3” outperformed “Rock of Ages” at the box office on its opening weekend. But for those of us a little older, a little wiser, and a little bit slower to get to the movie theater, “Rock of Ages” can be a guilty pleasure, a fun and ridiculous night away from the kids and the bills.  Just don’t forget your can of Tab and packet of Pop Rocks – they don’t sell those at the concession stand anymore.