Combining the worst of Michael Schultz’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and Menahem Golan’s The Apple (1980) with the kind of music that caused me to stop listening to radio altogether, Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages emerges as one of the damnedest things ever to grace a theater screen. Stranger still, for all its flaws (and worse), it’s a movie with flashes of creative outbursts that make it seem like it could have been better than it is. This only serves to make Rock of Ages just that much more dispiriting. Flashes of creativity and jaw-dropping strangeness simply can’t overcome the mentally defective “story,” the painfully excessive running time (the thing just keeps going “on and on and on and on”—like the song says), the frequently awful choreography—or the twin black holes of charisma known as Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, who, unfortunately, are the theoretical stars of the piece. How bad are they? Bad enough that you may find yourself longing for Peter Frampton and Sandy Farina (who?) in Sgt. Pepper. That’s bad.
It was undoubtedly true that the movie’s soundtrack was going to be an issue for me since I am in no way nostalgic for the 1980s or its pop music. That said, I’m hardly a fan of the music in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) or O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), but I’m fine with it in context and love both films. So it wasn’t a given that an overdose of Journey was going to sink Rock of Ages for me. I can’t say it helped, but it didn’t cook the goose. Other things cooked it, but only after stuffing it, trussing it and basting the damn thing.
Musicals don’t necessarily need much in the way of plot to work. (A Hard Day’s Night can be summed up in a sentence: The Beatles go to London for a TV special.) Rock of Ages has more plots than it knows what to do with—and I mean that literally. The movie has absolutely no idea what do with its dumb-as-a-splintered-drumstick young-love plot, its save-the-club-from-bankruptcy plot, its Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) redemption plot, or its evil-politician’s-wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking like a wax effigy) tries-to-shut-down-the-club plot. That last plot should have been junked altogether. It goes nowhere and adds nothing other than extra running time and the most embarassingly choreographed number in the picture.
Really, nearly everything about the movie is wrong. The opening number with our drippy heroine, Sherrie Christian (Hough), singing “Sister Christian” with a busload (literally) of backing singers provokes the wrong kind of laughter—and the movie never quite recovers. Then again, there’s probably no way to do anything with any of the scenes involving the romantic leads. I’d say they’re terminally boring, but that doesn’t do them justice. These kids are way beyond boring. Exposure to them might in fact cause narcolepsy in the more susceptible. You’ve been warned.
The supporting players fare better—once you get past the wigs. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand come across with at least a measure of appeal, especially Brand. Tom Cruise—of course, playing the most aggressively heterosexual rocker imaginable—has some caricature appeal as Stacee Jaxx, and his pet baboon, Hey Man (Micky), helps. (Since the addition of simian value was apparently Cruise’s idea, he gets high marks on that score, too.) Most of the film’s nicer touches—like Jaxx solving a crossword puzzle in the middle of a number without breaking his stride—tend to involve Cruise, but so do some of the more cringe-worthy scenes, so it may be a wash.
Really, though there is something almost mesmerizing in Rock of Ages’ amassed awfulness and amateur feel. I can’t imagine actually recommending the movie—except on the basis of “you have to see it to believe it.” On that basis, I’m glad I saw it, but honestly, all it actually did is make me pop Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) into the DVD player. It’s time better spent. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking and language.