Director: Adam Shankman.
Rated: PG-13. Running Time: 123 mins.
Stars: Julianne Hough and Tom Cruise.
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.
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.
Of course, Tom Cruise isn’t the first Hollywood actor to take a stab at playing a rock star. Here are some of my favorites:
• Hugh Grant, Music and Lyrics (2007). This is actually my favorite Hugh Grant movie. He plays a washed-up 1980s rock star who’s living off the royalties and residual fame from his old group, clearly modeled after George Michael’s Wham! (only Grant’s not the George Michael character — he’s the other, less successful guy). He teams up with a young songwriter (Drew Barrymore) and romantic comedy ensues. But the film’s highlights are hands-down Grant’s musical numbers, most notably the opening one, a faux-1980s music video called “Pop Goes My Heart.”
• Billy Crudup, Almost Famous (2000). Seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old Rolling Stone writer (Patrick Fugit), Crudup’s lead guitarist for an up-and-coming band is a mixture of hero and overgrown child. Best scene: Crudup standing on a roof, planning to make a dangerous jump into a swimming pool, and contemplating his last words: “I love music … and I’m on drugs!”
• Kris Kristofferson, A Star is Born (1976). Of course, he was a songwriter (“Me and Bobby McGee”) and a musical performer before he turned to acting, but Kristofferson was certainly no rock star when he took on the role of burned-out singer John Norman Howard opposite Barbra Streisand. John’s a growling, boozy mess, yet there’s not a dry eye in the house when he goes to that big bandstand in the sky. Elvis Presley was first approached to play the role — and how great would that have been?
• Bette Midler, The Rose (1979). Okay, Bette really was a rock star, and The Rose was her first movie, but we’re going to cut her some slack here because, frankly, we need a woman on the list. Known for her outrageous stage presence and whacked-out persona, Midler took everyone by surprise with her layered, exquisitely measured performance as a tragic diva modeled after Janis Joplin. Her first time out of the gate, Midler was nominated for an Oscar.
• Bill Nighy, Love Actually (2003). In all the movies, there’s no fallen rock star more fun to be with than Nighy’s Billy Mack, a onetime hit factory who has re-recorded his greatest classic as a holiday record, substituting the word “Love” with “Christmas.” Tired, cynical and resigned to living the rest of his days as the answer to a trivia question, Billy goes on a local radio show and pleads, “Buy my festering turd of a record.”