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Movie Review: 'Rock of Ages'

Screen version of the Broadway tribute to '80s rock 'n' roll hair bands


Director: Adam Shankman.
Rated: PG-13. Running Time: 123 mins.
Stars: Julianne Hough and Tom Cruise.

En Español | Rock of Ages, the screen incarnation of the Broadway hit populated by more 1980s heavy metal clichés than an episode of Behind the Music, is a lovable lug of a movie, its  tattooed heart pierced with a dagger and wrapped in barbed wire.

The film features Tom Cruise, shirtless in a black leather vest, impossibly ripped and howling with a set of pipes that would make Dee Snider take notice, in the most surprising performance of his career.

Rock of Ages tells the story of a young woman trying to make it in 1980s Los Angeles, and the cast sings songs by the era’s heaviest rockers, including Styx, Journey and Poison.  (A disclaimer: I basically missed the 1980s music scene — at least the heavy metal fringe of it. Like a lot of people my age, I was busy raising a young family — Def Leppard at night would have kept the kids up.)

So aside from the songs that have since found their way into TV commercials, most of the music in Rock of Ages is foreign to me. But that also makes it fresh and different, and I get to approach the movie free of nostalgic constraints. Did Twisted Sister perform “We’re Not Gonna Take It” better than Catherine Zeta-Jones? Hey, who knows? I do know I happened to hear Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in the car last weekend, and I can tell you Cruise does the song absolute justice, at least to my inexperienced ears.


Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Patricia Whitmore in Broadway inspired Rock of Ages. — Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment

The supporting cast is fine — I hear a lot of people are swooning over Julianne Hough, who plays the heroine. Hough was apparently once a big deal on Dancing With the Stars — that life-sucking, time-incinerating latter-day Dance Fever (but without Deney Terrio!). She and her leading man, a cleft-chin cutie pie named Diego Boneta, sing well enough, but they offer little in the way of character. Much better are Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the guys who run the concert venue — largely because each actor has established a firm screen persona before this, and they play either right into it (wild-eyed, anarchic Brand) or against type (Baldwin, unshaven and droopy-eyed, appearing like Bill Graham might have had the Fillmore impresario lived long enough to get burned out).

Director Adam Shankman, who directed the triumphant screen version of Hairspray in 2007, may be the only guy in Hollywood who can direct a successful musical these days. He does fall prey to the scourge of post-All That Jazz film musicals, though: He insists on slicing every dance move into tiny edits, so one combination may entail as many as eight shots. That undeniably adds energy to the film, but also raises the suspicion that the performer is not actually capable of giving a sustained dance performance. Believe me, I know the musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly could be every bit as brainless as Rock of Ages, but at least we got to enjoy those geniuses in full, flowing flower.

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