“Rock of Ages” represents a miscalculation and failure of epic proportions. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie that doesn’t rock, featuring performers who can’t sing performing songs that don’t fit, in a lackluster, cliche-filled story that’s poorly paced and has no stakes.
Based on the popular Broadway musical of the same name, “Rock of Ages” belongs to the somewhat disreputable genre known as “jukebox musical”- rather than original songs, the score instead consists of popular pop songs of the past, in this case pop hair metal classics of the late 1980s.
The film is directed by Adam Shankman, who previously helmed the successful movie musical remake of “Hairspray,” but “Rock of Ages” falls apart all around him.
The film tells a bare-bones story, shoehorning little bits of plot seemingly just so they fit the lyrics of the relevant songs. Set in 1987 and centered around a Sunset Strip rock club called the Bourbon Room, the film concerns Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Mexican soap star Diego Boneta), aspiring rock stars and lovebirds at the club, which is run by Dennis Dupree (a horribly miscast Alec Baldwin, in a laughable wig). Also on hand is biggest rock star in their world Stacee Jaxx, played by Tom Cruise as an extended parody of Axl Rose, if Rose had been approaching 50 years old in 1987.
There’s also a sleazy music manager (Paul Giamatti) and a frequently forgotten subplot involving the mayor of Los Angeles (an obviously-embarrassed-to-be-there Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Catherine Zeta Jones), who’s there to skewer both Tipper Gore’s warning label campaign and the hysteria at the time about “satanism” in rock music.
The miscalculations here are seemingly endless. On top of the overlong structure and frequent, feeble attempts at humor and music industry satire, the musical sequences in particular are a disaster, filled with actors who simply aren’t able to sing. There are also numerous mashups of songs that don’t fit together- in a garish mix of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Jukebox Hero,” the only part that fits is that Russell Brand’s wig makes him resemble Joan Jett.
“Rock of Ages” seemingly owes its existence to Glee, which showed that audiences want to see covers of beloved pop songs and even buy them on iTunes. But the difference is that Glee, for all of its many faults, is cast with actors who are skilled singers, and actually puts effort and creativity into its musical numbers. “Rock of Ages” was clearly more interested in casting name actors than considering whether they could sing. When Mary J. Blige shows up, it’s in a way refreshing, since she’s the only person in the movie who has anything resembling a passable singing voice.
Then there’s the Cruise character, who the actor plays not with charisma but with something more like drug-addled monotone. It’s almost like he’s repeating his performance from “Interview With the Vampire.” (Though that doesn’t stop every woman from falling over him, including a Rolling Stone reporter played by bad movie mainstay Malin Akerman.)
The film also makes a big deal, repeatedly, over whether Jaxx is continuing with his band or going solo, even though we never meet any of his bandmates or get any sense of how his music is different in each incarnation.
There’s also the conceit in which some pop songs from the period are attributed to their actual artists- Def Leppard and Bon Jovi are real bands in this universe- but “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” are songs by Stacee Jaxx instead, which is just disconcerting and weird.
Then at one point, the Boneta character starts singing “a song I wrote,” which is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”- a song that had already been popular for six years prior to 1987. I was reminded of that great scene in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” when Jesse Eisenberg claims he wrote Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” There are also numerous Foreigner, Night Ranger and REO Speedwagon songs from a decade before the film’s events; Extreme’s “More Than Words” is also featured, even though it came out four years later.
One of the only missteps of last year’s “Muppets” movie was that in one scene it used Starship’s much-maligned song “We Built This City” unironically. But at least it wasn’t a movie claiming to be about the rock ‘n’ roll spirit; “Rock of Ages” is, and does it use that song? Of course it does.
And of all the things wrong with this movie, I think that’s what bothered me most of all. This isn’t “Almost Famous,” a movie that was largely about the discovery and love of music. “Rock of Ages” is only pro- rock ‘n’ roll because it says it is.
This isn’t to say that jukebox musicals can’t work on screen; Julie Taymor’s Beatles-infused “Across the Universe” mostly worked just because it had an understanding of what the Beatles were about, and also made it effort to make the songs sound good. “Rock of Ages” just throws a bunch of disparate music at the wall to see what’ll stick.
All I have positive to say about “Rock of Ages” is that the production design is impressive, and Hough and Boneta’s love story has some sweet moments. But aside from that, it fails on the levels of character, acting, singing, pacing, staging and believability. The summer has a new worst movie.