Just when you thought you’d never hear Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” again outside of a strip club comes “Rock of Ages,” a shiny, splashy homage to the decadence of 1980s rock ‘n’ roll.
Specifically, we’re talking about 1987 on the Sunset Strip, the birthplace of bands like Guns N’ Roses and Poison, and all the big-haired, eye-linered debauchery that defined that scene. Your enjoyment of this musical, based on the Tony-nominated Broadway show, will depend greatly on your enjoyment of this music — because director Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) crams in a lot of it.
Did you make out in a car with your high school honey past curfew to Skid Row’s “I Remember You”? If your answer is yes, you’ll probably have a good time, even though the movie lasts an awfully long time. There’s way too much Foreigner on the soundtrack for my personal liking, and no one ever needs to hear Starship’s “We Built This City” played in public (or in private for that matter), even ironically. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the film’s climactic final number, has the misfortune of having grown tiresome in recent years between its inclusion on “Glee” and “The Sopranos” finale. And if we’re really being nitpicky, some of the songs featured here, like the Extreme ballad “More Than Words,” didn’t even exist yet.
Still, if this era was a formative time in your life and you’re feeling a yearning for kitschy nostalgia, “Rock of Ages” provides a sufficiently fun little escape. Aqua Net! Wine coolers! Men with ponytails! We were so lame.
Sure, the characters are all broad types, from fresh-faced newcomers with dreams of stardom to grizzled, cynical veterans who’ve seen it all. And sure, their antics are glossed-up and watered-down compared to reality to ensure a PG-13 accessibility. But the movie has enough energy to keep you suitably entertained, as well as a knowing, cheeky streak that prevents it from turning too reverent and self-serious.
The impossibly adorable Julianne Hough stars as Sherrie, a wholesome blonde fresh off the bus from Oklahoma who hopes to make it as a singer in Los Angeles. Instead, she ends up working as a waitress at the venerable (and fictional) Bourbon Room, where she quickly falls for aspiring rocker Drew (Diego Boneta).
But the club has lost some of its cache, to the distress of its owner (Alec Baldwin in long hair and a leather vest) and his right-hand man (Russell Brand, being Russell Brand), so they’re hoping a performance from rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise, easily the best part of the film) will keep them alive. Stacee’s sleazy manager (a well-cast Paul Giamatti, who’s also game enough to sing) merely wants to continue milking his notoriously unreliable client.
With a bandana tied around his long, wild tresses, aviator sunglasses and fur coat over his bare, tatted chest, Cruise is clearly aping Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose. (And speaking of apes, everywhere the character goes, he’s accompanied by his pet baboon named Hey Man). But the swagger is reminiscent of his supporting role in “Magnolia,” still his best work yet. Cruise gives a performance that’s intensely weird and weirdly intense; it’s sexy and funny and a great fit for his own status as a rock star among actors.
Unfortunately, this film version (with a script from Chris D’Arienzo, who created the stage show, Allan Loeb and Justin Theroux) also feels the need to cram in a subplot about the self-righteous, uptight wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of L.A.’s mayor (Bryan Cranston), who’s on a crusade to clean up the Strip. Even though the “Chicago” star’s intentionally rigid performance of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is good for a laugh, the whole story thread seems like a feeble attempt at injecting tension.
Far more effective is the presence of Mary J. Blige as the strip club owner with a heart of gold who takes Sherrie under her wing when life in Los Angeles gets too tough. The second she struts into a room and opens her mouth, she just blows everyone else away — a powerful reminder of how a superstar can truly rock.
“Rock of Ages,” a New Line Cinema release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking and language. Running time: 123 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.