Sitting through Rock of Ages is akin to being trapped at karaoke night at the local dive, where you’re pummeled by ill-advised renditions of ’80s hair metal and can’t make it through the evening without some asshole breaking into “Don’t Stop Believin'”. As Journey so eloquently put it in that song: the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.
The concept — a jukebox musical about rock stars on their respective trajectories up and down the fame ladder in Hollywood circa 1987 — is the sort of thing that works on Broadway but flops on film. It’s a two-hour anthology of about two dozen 1980s glam rock hits grafted onto a thin, formulaic plot, and despite its fist-pumping attempts to worship at the altar of Rock, the energy just isn’t there.
The plot is entirely formulaic: all-American girl Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) gets off a Greyhound bus in West Hollywood, having escaped Oklahoma in search of a singing career. She meets and falls for Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rocker who gets her a job at the legendary rock club The Bourbon Room, run by aging promoter Denis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his assistant Lonny (Russell Brand).
Across town, the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) borrows a page from Footloose and vows to bring decency back to the Hollywood Strip (was it ever there?) by shutting down the Bourbon Room.
Cue the obligatory concert to save the club, and enter Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a self-serious rocker in the Axl Rose/Jim Morrison mold whose imminent solo career is really a last-ditch attempt to keep the ride going. He’s surrounded at all times by gigantic bodyguards, a bevy of scantily clad women, a sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti), and a monkey henchman named Hey Man.
Two things render Rock of Ages dead on arrival: It never channels a distinct time-and-place ’80s feel, content to rely on costuming and hair product to recreate the era; and it lacks the tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation needed to make the silliness tolerable. You know you’re in for trouble when even Russell Brand seems bored.
It certainly doesn’t help that the movie’s central duo, Hough and Boneta, are completely bland and vocally anemic, or that their characters’ rote boy-meets-girl, boy-looses-girl romance is dull and predictable.
In fact, so much of Rock of Ages feels programmed and familiar that there is very little in the way of surprises. Baldwin and Brand’s take on REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is mildly amusing, and Cruise and Malin Ackerman (as a smitten Rolling Stonereporter) deliver a suitably raunchy duet of “I Wanna Know What Love Is” perks things up considerably, but the movie immediately deflates afterwards. Sadly, what little credibility Rock of Ages builds up is squandered by the “We’re Not Gonna Take It/We Built This City” mash-up. (Whoever decided to combine Twisted Sister with Starship deserves an ass kicking.)
Of the large ensemble cast, only Cruise really gets into the swing of things, playing his incredibly debauched, dissolute, and disconnected fallen rock god to the hilt. From the moment he’s introduced (wearing leather chaps and gargoyle-headed codpiece) he makes an impact, swaggering through each scene and delivering the goods during his song numbers. For better and for worse, he pushes everyone else into the background.