Run Time: 123 minutes
1987. Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) flips through ads of Aerosmith’s signature album Permanent Vacation. She’s on her way to the low hills and Hollywood lights of Los Angeles, traveling on one of those ashen Greyhound buses. The camera slowly zooms in on Sherrie and then the piano starts – it’s Night Ranger’s 1984 hit “Sister Christian”. Suddenly, the bus joins in with “we’re motoring!…”, and so forth. I grow giddy, mainly because I haven’t heard this song in a movie since Alfred Molina rocked out to it in a cocaine frenzy in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
Instantly, I’m nostalgic. You probably will be too, as Rock of Ages is a lively two-hour romp of ‘80s pop-rock, where everyone including Alec Baldwin wants their hands on the microphone. The movie takes place on the Sunset Strip of Hollywood, California, a milieu populated with neon lights, whiskey bars, rowdy rockstars, and fame-hungry twentysomethings. The characters, of course, spend their lonely nights singing under the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee.
The film is directed by L.A.-born Adam Shankman, a professional choreographer whose last musical adaptation was 2007’s effervescent and heartfelt Hairspray. Rock of Ages is also adapted from a broadway musical, one by Chris D’Arienzo. Where both Hairspray and Rock of Ages surely earn their punch from the musical numbers, the latter suffers from a lack of fundamental storytelling. Hairspray smartly transitioned from one’s rags-to-riches tale to a group’s chant for racial equality, but Rock of Ages has no idea what it’s about. It doesn’t have a narrative net to organize its many subplots.
The plot affronts us from all sides. There is a romance between Sherrie and Bourbon Room busboy Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), both on the prowl for fame and fortune. Meanwhile, club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and right-hand man Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand) fight financial issues (and their homosexuality) with slime ball Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), while the club hosts the concert of Arsenal’s infamous Stacie Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a Bon Jovi-lookalike who we first see drunkenly ascend from a pile of scantily clad female groupies. He has a pet monkey named Hey Man, probably because a primate in rocker garb earns easy laughs.
Guess what? There’s more. The Bourbon Room is challenged by church lady puritan Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of the mayor (Bryan Cranston, w.t.f.?) who wants to shut down the said club and fill Sunset Strip with Christian Love not rock-and-roll. My, I forgot about the Rolling Stone journalist Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) out to write a cover story on Jaxx only to capture his weary heart. Gee, there’s also a side bit featuring actress Mary J. Blige, which is about as random as hearing Beethoven at this venue.
Before watching Rock of Ages, I perfunctorily compared it to Robert Altman’s moving swan song A Prairie Home Companion. Ok, I should keep some things to myself; but Rock of Ages wouldn’t hurt in Altman’s hands. I suspect he could channel all these strings of stories about the love of fame, music, and another. Shankman, however, can’t juggle them, leaving his audience a little confused about what or who to emotionally invest in.
Yes, the songs are fun and energetic but shouldn’t we be at least a bit partial to story? Characters come and go, conflict vanishes and abruptly reappears, and all the audience can do is find sanctuary in the synchronized tunes by Journey, Pat Benatar, et al., which we could easily just listen to on the soundtrack album at home. But note: I do like the film’s historical touch that all the newly-released vinyl cost $9.44 back then in record stores.
On that token, I will say Rock of Ages captures the details of the era nicely. It feels like 1987. The costumes are spot on, the sets have the right flashiness, and the props match the times. The movie maintains energy, even though the songs are choppily shot and edited á la Glee. Just once couldn’t they hold the shot longer than 3 seconds?! But that’s a small quibble.
The problem is it is hard to care about what goes on here. The plot lacks originality and nothing – at least of what is here – really flows. Our heads may bob to the beats, but they will disappointingly shake at the story within. And so, Rock of Ages plays like most ‘80s tune themselves: it has enough pop and zap to occasionally distract us from the thin and trite material that carries this melody along. But far too often, it all sounds the same.