Tom Cruise fairly rocks in this jukebox musical
It’s 1987 and a young woman comes to LA to live out her dream of becoming an actress. Instead, she winds up waitressing and falling in love, all to the sounds of the biggest songs of the 80s.Rock of Ages is adapted from the 2006 stage version from Chris D’Arienzo and comes to screens as a particularly star studded jukebox musical. For those not in the know, that means the film uses existing songs to tell its story, in the style of TVs Glee.
For the movie version, Adam Shankman has taken over directing duties. He’s best known as the director and choreographer of 2007s Hairspray but has also worked on such classics as The Pacifier and Bedtime Stories, while also having a spell on Glee. Shankman attracted a surprising number of big names to Hairspray, including John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer but has outdone himself this time by nabbing superstar Tom Cruise for a major role.Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, an 80s icon amalgam that takes in strong elements of Axel Rose and a touch of Keith Richards, while mining Bon Jovi’s discography liberally. It’s Cruise’s first singing role and he approaches it with his usual commitment, bringing together a broad and engaging character for Jaxx that manages to find some depth in the dramatic scenes and a decent level of performance once the dial goes up to 11.
Jaxx’s struggle with his increasing distance from his artistic roots and his complicated relationship with Rolling Stone reporter Malin Akerman easily had enough mileage to carry the film but the narrative unfortunately focuses elsewhere. To some degree, it’s on the burgeoning relationship between young Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta but there are also frequent asides to the money troubles of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand while Catherine Zeta-Jones bursts in from time to time to be intolerant about rock n roll.
With so many characters it can be difficult to know who the film is really about, a fact not helped by a meandering narrative and a structure which can’t quite figure out where to place its emphasis, especially when it lingers into an extraneous fourth act.
At least the songs are good. Apart from Bon Jovi you’ll hear tunes from Starship, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Journey and more. They’re generally performed with gusto even if the processing makes it hard to determine actual talent and some songs work better than others in their chosen context. Shankman’s choreography might be impressive but I couldn’t really discern it through the strangely blocked camera angles and an overabundance of editing.Cruise is a lot of fun here, grabbing the best scenes with other performers like Ackerman and an evil Paul Giamatti while young Hough and Boneta are just fine. More problematic are the older pros, with Baldwin and Brand’s comic duo failing to raise many laughs, Zeta- Jones pulling out a little too much crazy and a totally forgettable performance from the normally great Bryan Cranston.Rock of Ages is an energetic enough musical effort with some fun 80s period detail, a great cast (on paper) and enough iconic songs to keep fans of the decade more or less entertained. But when the film drifts away from Cruise’s Jaxx and on well into its second hour, things rapidly become less engaging.