Adam Shankman’s 118-minute Rock Of Ages has an abundance of energy, color and spirit that will satisfy young and old—if the audience is willing to put up with clunky clichés, as well as the way Hollywood sanitizes the 1980s West Hollywood scene.
The setting may have changed, but the elements of the story line differ little, say, from musicals such as 42nd Street.
It’s the music—hard rock and jukebox favorites—that partly saves the film adaptation of the 1980s Broadway musicale from being too precious.
It is also, in part, due to the casting of Tom Cruise in the role of the rocker Stacee Jaxx and Alec Baldwin, who as owner of the popular Bourbon Room, brings a what-the-hell quality to the film, thereby saving it from the cutesiness of a teeny-bopper movie.
Cruise not only sings, but has again found the friskiness and sexiness of his first film Risky Business. Alec Baldwin, sporting a wig one might only find in Screaming Mimis’ boutique, brings an element of zaniness to club owner Dennis Dupree that seems true to his self-centered persona.
In fact, the rest of the cast – Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Mary J. Blige, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julianne Hough, Malin Akerman, Diego Boneta and Bryan Cranston – manage somewhat to rub off the sugary wholesomeness that comes with prettifying the 1980s Sunset Strip.
A Mecca for American youth, the Sunset strip became the Emerald City of sexual excitement, dreams, daring and breaking the chains of deadening provincialism. And America’s youth flocked in droves to Los Angeles to find fame, fortune or simply themselves.
But Shankman’s film glosses over the setting: this was the time when the AIDS pandemic broke out. Then, West Hollywood was a stretch of many gay bars and clubs where rent boys, transvestite hookers and prostitutes walked the streets.
It was an age of “sex, hard rock and rock-n-roll”. It was a time of long hair, androgyny, drugs, unprotected sex and destructive behavior, in an age of Reagan with its mantra of the 1950 family values.
We can read Rock Of Ages, if we so choose, as a slice of history of a time gone by, where debauchery, sharing needles, leather, loud, aggressive music – exemplified by the amplified electric guitar, strong drums and symbols – frenetically feed on creative sexual and creative energies.
And, out of that experimental, lavish and bigger-than-life crucible of “sex, drugs and rock” emerged a heady legacy of music that speaks to our condition today: Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Journey, REO Speedway, Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Twisted Sisters, and the like – and this music pervades the majority of the movie.
Somewhat tacky, Rock Of Ages is intentionally outrageous. Yet, the plot is “straight” forward. Baldwin owns a gay club, the Bourbon Room; Brand is his lover. In desperation, Baldwin engages Cruise to save his club from extinction.
Although the film gently spoofs groupies, oversexed rock stars and boys who look like girls, Shankman is peddling a stripped, bare-boned romantic story as old as Hollywood itself: a wholesome, small town girl who comes to the big city to become a star is befriended by an aspiring rocker.
So, at its heart, Rock Of Agesis a boy-meets-girl story.
It’s a hard sell of the triumph of love and success, with little that seems left up to chance, where even shameless Cruise find his mate. Good wins over evil. Giamatti’s larceny is foiled; Zeta-Jones’ revenge thwarted, her sanctimoniousness subdued.
However, Blige – who plays strip-club-owner Justice - remains clear-eyed about the times and milieu in which she lives.
Basically, Rock Of Ages is a series of rock songs, throbbing either with disco-like thumping or the more soothing sounds of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” an upbeat number that seems to sum up the “Yes, I can” message of the film.
The 12 song soundtrack is irresistibly enjoyable, and, overall, the harsher reality of West Hollywood is conveniently sugarcoated – still, the romantic message of the film does not affect its reception in the least.
After all, the music has, like a rock, withstood the vagaries of time and place.
Rock of Ages, starring Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise, opens June 15 in theaters nationwide.