So there are two reasons to see this movie. Both of those reasons appear to be controversial in the first place, so just ask yourself how you feel about music from the 80s and Tom Cruise? If you don’t care for at least one of them, you have no reason to be sitting in the theater. If both of them work for you, then there might be a reason to see the film but it might not be a strong enough reason to pull you in if there are other reservations. There is lots to see and listen to here, but most of it is innocuous fluff that would not be missed by fans of either Cruise or pop music from the 1980s.
I did not count all the songs, I’m sure somewhere on line that information is available. I was impressed with the number of songs and the frequency with which I recalled them fondly. They were not particularly obscure titles, but the shelf life on some of them was short in the beginning so they will be unfamiliar to anyone who has not grown up listening to oldies and classic rock. The performances of the songs cover a wide range, like one of those theme nights on American Idol. There are some standouts, usually done in a traditional manner on stage. There are some clunkers, usually used for exposition where the most tangential connection to the thin story is used to justify it’s placement in the film. Finally, and most frequently there are middling versions of mediocre songs that will not be remembered five minutes after the movie is done. Sometimes those moments were briefly fun, frequently they were embarrassing.
Tom Cruise acquits himself pretty well in the singing segments. He has enough of a voice and enough electronic assistance, that you can accept he is a “Rock God” in an 80s hairband. The more successful aspects of his performance encompass the characterization he makes of a “Rock God” living the lifestyle. He spouts the most irrelevant comments and nonsensical responses you can imagine, but they come across organically. He carries off the brain-addled, over pampered, narcissist with ease. You will not doubt that Stacee Jaxx is a star modeled on some of the big names of the day. He could party with those people and fit in without a second glance. He and Malin Ackerman share one of the best scenes in the film, and both play it for comic impact. She goes straight for the laughs and he stays in character, giving the line readings and expressions that make the scene funny.
The love story between the young leads of the film is fine, but it is so predictable that it makes it even more clear how much was being forced together to get some narrative out of the story. The movie is a big goof to begin with, so if you don’t see the humor in this when you are going in, it will probably irritated you coming out. I can accept the goof on the idea of this being a cliche ridden patchwork rock fable filled with cheesy 80’s songs and over the top drama. I’ll bet on stage, with an audience of theater lovers it works like gangbusters. Here, I don’t think it works so well. In my head I kept seeing this as an extended episode of “Glee”, only without the gay subtext. Imagine my chagrin when the gay subtext shows up, out of the blue and completes the concept as an elaborately staged episode from that TV series. As a hit or miss pop jukebox, video retrospective, it works fine, but as a story it is simply limp.
There are several performers who show up and mostly miss having any impact. Bryan Cranston is wasted, unless you think seeing him spanked in his underwear would be funny. Catherine Zeta Jones, does her best singing and dancing, and she is competent in both. The problem she has, is the part is thankless and dumb headed and plays to the worst cliches of a youth audience, about anyone who might think the music or lifestyles of these people are questionable. Paul Giamatti plays sleazy without having to think to hard, and so he doesn’t. We are at least spared him crooning a full song. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about Alec Baldwin, who not only sings once, he sings twice, and one of the songs is the strangest romantic duets imaginable. It was good for one brief laugh. Russel Brand and Mary J. Blige show up, sing or act their parts and move on with the careers intact, but not much to show talent wise in this movie.
“Rock of Ages” is made for people who like theatrical musicals but are too lazy or poor to go out and see one on stage. It feels like a nice little revue that could be a bit shorter, a bit funnier, and a bit more memorable. I can imagine a lot of people hating it from the get go, a few people loving it for what it is, and almost everybody else who does see it, yawning indifferently and rendering a judgement of “meh”. Tom Cruise almost makes it worth seeing, but that word …almost…is really important to pay attention to. If you can live without being a completest on Tom’s works, then you can probably live quite happily, just putting in an old CD and listening to the original versions of the music.