Sometimes a movie can be a big, ole mess and still be likable enough to keep you engaged and entertained. This idea is commonly associated with movies that fall under the category of “guilty pleasure” or as the Urban Dictionary defines it: “Something you shouldn’t like, but do anyway.”
Rock of Ages, the latest film to be based on a hit Broadway musical, certainly lives up to that characterization.
Directed with verve by Adam Shankman (the man behind the movie musical version of Hairspray and all of the Step Up films released to date) and set during the height of the glam rock ‘80s, Rock of Ages follows the story of starry-eyed Oklahoma gal Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) – as in “Sister Christian,” the character’s introduction song – who moves to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a singer.
On her first night there, she meets Drew (Diego Boneta), an oddly wholesome wannabe rock star who talks his boss Dennis (Alec Baldwin) into giving her a job at the hottest spot on the Sunset Strip, The Bourbon Room. As Sherrie and Drew fall into candy-sweet first love, they’re swept into the nutty world of rock ‘n’ roll peopled by the crazy cast of characters that frequent the club, including Dennis’ viper-tongued sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand) and eventually rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) ,when he returns to do a show at the venue that first broke him.
What the two young lovers don’t know is that their beloved workplace is under threat of imminent closure by a local mayoral candidate (Bryan Cranston) and his holier-than-thou wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) who seems to have a particular axe to grind with Stacee Jaxx. Unfortunately Jaxx has spiraled downward into a shadow of his former talented self, obsessed with new-agey nonsense, booze and his angry (but very well-dressed) monkey companion, Hey Man. Foreseeing the eventual fall of Jaxx’s star, his oily manager Paul (Paul Giamatti) taps Drew as his latest project. The realities of the music industry and a nasty misunderstanding drive a wedge between Sherrie and Drew and the two are left to fend for themselves in big, bad Hollywood.
If the story sounds convoluted, that’s because it is – which is a big accomplishment for a plot that otherwise feels so thin. Screenwriters Justin Theroux (yes, the actor), Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the book for the stageplay) and Allan Loeb haven’t done much to flesh out the characters or story beats from the stage version yet it feels less to do with a lack a skill than a willingness to embrace the general dorkiness of the whole endeavor.
It’s clear right from the start that the film is more interested in building scenarios around the numerous rock anthems featured on the soundtrack than it is about say, keeping the focus on one main character, or spending more non-singing time on getting the audience invested in Drew and Sherrie as a couple. Yet strangely enough, that all ends up being okay. The movie’s pacing is fast, the jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny and the musical numbers are expertly executed.
It also helps that the cast is clearly on board with fully committing themselves to the madness. Cruise especially bites into the role of Stacee Jaxx with gusto, preening and prowling through the sets like an honourary member of Def Leppard. It’s kind of joyous to watch them all having so much fun even when the story becomes nonsensical and silly. There are also a bunch of casting easter eggs that will make repeat viewings especially fun – try and spot ‘80s music luminaries like Debbie Gibson and Sebastian Bach peppered throughout the movie in non-speaking roles. Shankman et al clearly know their audience and they’re not afraid to shamlessly cater to them.
In short, it’s nothin’ but a good time…as long as that’s the only thing you’re looking for.
Far from being a true "Juke Box Hero," Rock of ages still manages to delight with its own giddy brand of utter stupidity.