Who ever thought a cohesive narrative could be pieced together based on rock hits of the ’80’s?! Well…it can’t. Yes, the less than stellar ratings on Rotten Tomatoes should have been fair warning, BUT as a child of the 80’s, how could I resist checking it out?! And insofar as the tunes are concerned, it was a fun (and nostalgic) trip down memory lane, with 80’s classics ranging from ballads like Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”, Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” to the hard-driving rock anthems such as Guns ‘n Roses’ “Paradise City”, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. In addition, there are (deservedly so) multiple songs included by the likes of Journey, Pat Benatar, Styx and many more. In that regard (along with the hairstyles and clothing), it was a bit like traveling back in time…to possibly the cheesiest decade in history.
Within the first 10-15 minutes, my (fellow child of the 80’s) friend and I were looking at each other with ambivalence, wondering aloud if this was going to be the biggest waste of an afternoon ever. But then, an odd thing happened… It started to grow on us. We laughed. A lot. Granted, half the time we were laughing because it was so bad, it was funny; the other half of the time because it actually was funny. And frankly, it became harder and harder to decipher what was meant to be comedic and what wasn’t. I began to wonder if it was really just ALL poking fun at itself ~ even in its more earnest, seemingly serious moments. Regardless, I think the key was just giving ourselves over to the cheese. Heck, the 80’s themselves were cheesy! How could a movie exploiting them be anything but cheesy itself? It just became a matter of embracing it in all its garish glory.
It seems almost pointless to summarize the plot (if you can call it that), but for the sake of background: Stereotypical young innocent blonde girl from the sticks (no offense, Oklahomans – I’m from Kansas, so I have no leg to stand on here), boards a bus for Hollywood with starry-eyed aspirations of becoming a singer. Unfortunately, the scene in which the entire busload of people joins her in song (“Sister Christian”) doesn’t hold a candle to the goose-bump inducing effect Kate Hudson (as Penny Lane) and Co. doing the same with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous did. Instead, this scene kind of sets the stage for the cheese-fest to begin.
Sherrie (Julianna Hough, of Footlose, Dancing With the Stars and Ryan Seacrest’s girlfriend fame, who is beautiful, but whose vocals are as irritatingly squeaky and nasal-sounding as Britney Spears) conveniently gets dropped off RIGHT on the Sunset Strip, giddy with excitement and hopefulness, in spite of the seedy characters and happenings all around her, to which she is either naively oblivious or so blinded by the prospects ahead of her that she finds even the prostitutes, homeless and junkies sharing the Strip with her glamorous. She is immediately robbed of all her meager belongings, but a barkeep (Diego Boneta, who did not impress me much) from the Bourbon Room (it is assumed their take on L.A.’s Whiskey A Go Go) comes to the rescue, gets her a job at the bar, and their obligatory romance commences.
The Bourbon Room is owned and run by Alec Baldwin’s character (Dennis Dupree) and his sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand, whom I personally find hysterical no matter what he’s doing), both of whom are ROCKIN’ the 80’s hair, particularly Brand with a spiky signature mullet. Although I wouldn’t call this one of my favorite roles for Baldwin (who should definitely stick to acting versus singing), the pair provide the film with some of its most ridiculous (and unexpected) comedy through their own love story.
There is also the compensatory Footloose-inspired team of conservatives hell-bent on shutting down the “evil influences” of Rock & Roll. Catherine Zeta-Jones (as a closeted former groupie herself) leads the fight to bring it down, alongside her politician husband (played by the brilliant Bryan Cranston, who is lamentably totally wasted here). The crusade never feels like much of a viable threat (it in fact, comprised some of my least favorite scenes), but rather provides an opportunity for a bunch of buttoned-up church ladies to break into song and dance…which should have been funnier than it was.
Also worth noting among the sizable cast are Mary J. Blige, who looks AND sounds fantastic, as a strip-club owner, the always good Paul Giamatti as Stacee Jaxx’s (Tom Cruise) smarmy, pony-tailed manager and Malin Ackerman as a reporter for Rolling Stone assigned to do a story on Stacee.
But….by far the most impressive cast member is Tom Cruise as “Rock God” Stacee Jaxx (of the aptly named band Arsenal ~ how was that band name not actually taken in the 80’s?!) I’ve gotta hand it to him, there is a reason Cruise is a bona fide movie star. He defies his 50 years and is completely convincing as an 80’s rock icon, right down to the ass-less leather pants, the bejeweled codpiece, the tattoos, eyeliner and long hair. He looks AND sounds the part. The voice and guitar training he apparently had in preparation for this role clearly paid off ~ he truly sounds amazing, giving both Jon Bon Jovi (on “Wanted, Dead or Alive”) and Axl Rose (on “Paradise City”) a run for their money! I’ve no doubt I’d have worshipped at the altar of Stacee Jaxx had he existed in my 80’s youth!
In the end, Rock of Ages ultimately ends up being a ridiculous(ly) good time. No, it is NOT a great movie musical by any stretch (and I’ve not seen the stage production, so can’t speak to that), and there is no real substance to the “story”, but for someone who grew up in the 80’s and still knew the words to most of the film’s songs, remembered the big hair, big bangs and perms, the mini-skirts, shoulder pads and neon colors all too well, it was a rockin’ good time, schmaltz notwithstanding. If you as well, are a child of the 80’s, you might just enjoy it, too.