“Rock of Ages” takes all the weary conventions of the Broadway stage-door musical and transports them to the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It’s 1987, and a struggling rock club is relying on the receipts of a reclusive rock star’s final show to save it from ruin. The enemy at the gates? A corrupt mayor who wants the land for developers and his churchy wife, who is leading a crusade against the evils of rock music.
The story spools out with the aid of popular rock songs from the hair-band era, as sung by stars such as Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand and newcomers Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta.
The bands that “Rock of Ages” chooses to immortalize have karaoke kitsch value to be sure, but it’s hard to ignore that they embody a low-water mark in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. This celebrity tour through the repertory of Bon Jovi, Journey, Poison, Def Leppard, Styx and others would be less annoying if the movie didn’t make a point of touting these bands as something more than radio-friendly, major-label versions of harder-edged heavy-metal groups.
As a musical, there are a few enjoyable set pieces. At several points, “Rock of Ages” cross-fades between two songs with similar harmonic progressions. For instance, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister as sung by angry anti-rock protesters led by Miss Zeta-Jones alternates with Mr. Brand and chorus riposting with the odious “We Built This City” by Starship. It remains cute, even as the technique is repeated several times in each act, and has the added benefit of pointing to the numbing sameness of the score.
The movie stars acquit themselves reasonably well as singers. Mr. Cruise as Stacee Jaxx (kind of a Bon Jovi-Axl Rose hybrid) brings some of the high pitch of his speaking voice to his singing style. It’s very distinctive, and I suspect the sound engineers turned it up as a way of making the tracks sound more authentic. Mr. Cruise performs with the most abandon, and as a result the lip-syncing is less obvious in his solo songs than in other scenes.
Miss Hough is quite charming as the Oklahoma girl who comes to Los Angeles with nothing but the clothes on her back, a can of hair spray and a dream of making it big. But as a singer, she’s a bit of a bust - her voice is too thin and reedy to match up to the power ballads of the era. Mr. Boneta, who plays her love interest, is better, but he’s not convincing as a performer. Mr. Baldwin is ridiculous as the aging, long-haired club manager Dennis Dupree, but any pleasure to be had laughing at him is short-lived. The casting of Mary J. Blige as a strip club operator is equally ridiculous, only because her powerfully intense vocals make everyone else look amateurish by comparison.
To its credit, “Rock of Ages” does not try to distinguish between its intentionally comic moments and the laughter that arises from pure embarrassment. I suppose this is the essence of camp, but “Rock of Ages” is too determinedly populist to be truly campy. Instead, “Rock of Ages,” by being over-produced, predictable and celebrity-driven, embodies the worst aspects of the music it seeks to celebrate.
TITLE: “Rock of Ages”
CREDITS: Directed by Adam Shankman; written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb
RATING: PG-13 for profanity, sexual content and alcohol abuse
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS