If you’re a die-hard fan of rock music, I can almost guarantee that Rock of Ages, the latest musical adaptation from Hairspray director Adam Shankman, hasn’t been made with you in mind. This film, despite the title and rocking playlist, is as cheesy and uplifting as any West End musical out there, and has been targeted at the Glee crowd just as enthusiastically as the hopeful fans of its musical origins. Whether this is a bad thing depends entirely on which camp you fall into, but still has the potential to entertain for most of its generous 123-minute running time.
The predictable story centres on Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a girl from Ohio who travels to L.A. in hopes of becoming a star. After she is mugged on her arrival, friendly bartender Drew (Diego Boneta) comes to Sherrie’s aid and snags her a job at the iconic Bourbon, owned by Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand. This pairing is the first of Rock of Ages’ casting coups – the second coming is Tom Cruise’s barmy performance as aging rocker Stacee Jaxx. With the club being threatened with religious protesters (led by Catherine Zeta Jones) and financial problems, Jaxx comes back to the place which made his name for one final gig.
What sets Rock of Ages apart, and the thing that I’m sure everyone involved is hoping will bring in the box-office numbers, is the winking humour at its own genre’s expense, poking fun at the ’80s whilst still holding a great deal of affection for the period. It’s a hard tightrope to walk, and the film falls off too many times to be considered a success in tone. The aforementioned Glee, which really has to be considered whenever discussing a modern musical, deals in the same good-hearted cynicism, and proves how hard it is not to slip into cheesy condescension. Glee even stole Rock of Ages’ final triumphant moment (or was it the other way around?), meaning that anyone who wasn’t sleeping through late 2009 will experience crushing recognition rather than soaring delight during the finale.
The film does try its best to fend off some of the more obvious criticism, and seems keen to prove itself against the heavy preconceptions it carries with it. For some reason, feel-good entertainment is often beaten down for lacking edge, but Rock of Ages subscribes to the old-fashioned purpose of a musical-comedy: to make people feel good. It’s been made with a certain demographic in mind, and does stand out in the otherwise superhero-saturated summer landscape. Had it been shorter, the good-will it does afford in the first act may not have been stretched so thinly, but sadly Hollywood still seems to think longer equals better.
Hough and Boneta are as bland as they come, but are capable anchors to the more ridiculous antics going on around them. But although there is some perverse pleasure in watching Cruise stumble around like a washed-up rocker, having long alienated any allies or friends he once had, the real joy lies with Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, whose scenes of broad comedy are the highlights of the movie. Everyone even holds their own with the musical numbers, as auto-tuned as some of them might sound, although Hough’s dancing ability (shown in Dancing with the Stars and Footloose) is inexplicably missing.
Even if musicals aren’t your thing, Rock of Ages does provide a good time at the movies. Ex-choreographer Shankman does his best with the musical numbers, the performances range from passable to excellent, and the film hits the right notes more times than it misses. In the tradition of musicals-turned-movies, it’s not as good as the stage version, but star power and glossy Hollywood sheen will ensures that ultimately it doesn’t matter.