“Rock of Ages” is adapted from a stage musical that — in the manner of “Mamma Mia” and “Jersey Boys” — uses a story as an excuse to resurrect bygone hits with emotional resonance for an aging demographic. This is generally a debased subgenre, though (as my colleague Wade Major points out) one that also includes “Singin' in the Rain.” In the current case, however, the music isn't classic Tin Pan Alley, but rather ’80s power ballads and anthems from the likes of Twisted Sister, Journey, Pat Benatar and Foreigner.
Most of the action takes place on the Sunset Strip in 1987, including a recreated Tower Records and a fictional club called the Bourbon Room. (Gosh, I wonder what real-world venue that's supposed to evoke.) No sooner does sweet wannabe singer Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) get off the bus from Oklahoma than she gets a waitress job at the club, thanks to boy-destined-to-be-her-true-love Drew Boley (Diego Boneta).
The club — run by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), a graying refugee from the ’60s, and his assistant, Lonny (Russell Brand) — is in dire financial shape, partly because the new mayor's anti-rock wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is crusading to shut down this hotbed of sin. She'd really go berserk if the movie hadn't whitewashed the entire rock-club scene (presumably for “family” appeal and a PG-13 rating). If the F-word, or any of its oh-so-common compounds is uttered, it went right past my jaded brain. And, while alcohol is everywhere, drugs appear not to exist. (There is a coy acknowledgment of this conspicuous absence when Zeta-Jones — seemingly about to pull out the old “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” line to describe the three things wrong with the Bourbon Room — says, “Sex, satanic music, and — and — sex!”)
In the same scene, Zeta-Jones and her followers break into “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” accompanied by horrible choreography. The whole number is awkward, as though director Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”), himself a choreographer, is making her do moves she knows are awful.
And then Tom Cruise shows up, almost redeeming the whole project. He plays the Axl Rose-ish Stacee Jaxx, a megastar who, through his sleazeball manager (Paul Giamatti), has agreed to do a free one-night stand to save the club. All the other characters are either cartoons (Brand, Baldwin, Zeta-Jones) or clichés (the two young lovers). Stacee starts out cartoonish, but then, some way or another, Cruise brings a little more depth and texture to the character than the film deserves.
Cruise also does his own singing — more than adequately. At first I doubted the filmmakers' claim that no voice doubles were used, until I heard Giamatti. Yep: Definitely no voice double there. The rest of the non-singers on hand sound pretty good, until Mary J. Blige shows up (as the manager of a nearby strip joint) to remind us of what a professional sounds like.
The script isn't particularly funny. Most of the humor comes from Baldwin, Brand and Cruise, but — as in a Marx Brothers film — everything grinds to a halt when the young lovers are center stage, which unfortunately is most of the time.
In short, “Rock of Ages” is your basic stew of “Footloose,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Music and Lyrics,” every “Let's put on a show!” musical from the last 80 years and “Showgirls,” updated for yet another generation. As in the last of these, trying to determine how the movie sees itself is tricky. Are all of the clichés and recyclings earnest? Or are some ironic? Or satirical? Some indeterminate combination? Maybe it's all ironic. Your guess is as good as mine.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun