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So much of the entertainment output of the 1980s has been maligned as worthless pabulum, as though if something were to emerge from a time period that didn’t have a Vietnam or a recession, it had nothing to sink its cultural roots in, it was ephemeral. Really? Then how does one explain Michael, Whitney or Madonna?
Rock of Ages, the stage musical directed by Kristen Hanggi and written by Chris D’Arienzo, made it all the way to Broadway in 2009 by giving a voice to an in-between era deemed irrelevant and infertile, appealing to karaoke and iPod generations by jiggering a standard fairy tale love story around such 1980s hair metal and power ballad gems as “More Than Words, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Heaven,” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” It was an improbably alchemic work that was empowering in its own way, reminding those who came of age during that time period, or even behind it, that just because those years never produced a Sgt. Pepper or a “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s still worth remembering.
And yet the movie version of Rock, directed by Adam Shankman, doesn’t share that sentiment. There’s a distancing effect to the film. As opposed to, say, The Wedding Singer, which bathed in ‘80s excesses, Rock turns its nose up at it, creating a series of characters-as-grotesques and sneering as if to say, “Thank God we’re out of that time period.” It reviles what it should be reveling in.
D’Arienzo has adapted this greatest hits package for the screen, grafting a series of formula threads for its crisscrossing ensemble, beginning with Sherrie (a tinny-voiced Julianne Hough), newly arrived on the Sunset Strip by way of Tulsa, who immediately falls for Drew Dean (Diego Boneta), an aspiring musician peddling drinks at the fictitious hot spot The Bourbon Room. Drew’s parents don’t believe in his music (why oh why oh why couldn’t the von Trapps have relocated to the City of Angels?!), but Sherrie does, and Dean gets her a job as a barback there, even as it hemorrhages money, to the disdain of slovenly owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his dedicated employee Lonnie (Russell Brand).
Dennis gets a chance to restore Bourbon Room glory by booking a solo gig by Stacee Jaxx, an Axl Rose/David Lee Roth surrogate (Tom Cruise), but he first has to contend with Jaxx’s oily manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) and politician’s wife Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), spearheading a Tipper Gore-style crusade against the “filthy” music.
Of course, the music wasn’t any dirtier or more dangerous than that of most other eras; it was popular and fun, but D’Arienzo’s script subverts the film’s intent, making every character’s situation look like a bubble from which they must burst. Shankman, who helped reincarnate Hairspray back into a movie musical five years with a knowing blend of traditional genre tenets and contemporary storytelling sensibilities, is on autopilot here. Gone is the killer stage number for “Here I Go Again,” replaced by a routine montage – one of many – and there are multiple mash-ups when one would have sufficed.
The game cast, at least, is all in on the joke, and if few performers work too hard – save for Boneta, charismatic and truly talented – Baldwin, Brand, Giamatti, and, in a flurry of smaller roles, Malin Akerman, Mary J, Blige and Bryan Cranston all have fun. (Only Zeta-Jones comes off a bit stiff, especially when compared to the fluid background dancers behind her). And Constantine Maroulis, an American Idol finalist and the Broadway Drew, is sporting enough to make a cameo, as do actual ‘80s rockers Sebastian Bach, Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme), Kevin Cronin (REO Speedwagon), Deborah “Debbie” Gibson, and Joel Hoekstra (Night Ranger). It’s Cruise who makes the most lasting impression, in a well-studied yet spontaneous-seeming turn as Jaxx. He’s explosive, showing the highs, lows and folly a life of excess can provide. And he can sing as well.
Unfortunately, the movie never really does. Rock should praise what can rightfully be thought of as the good old days, a time when the economy seemed indomitable and international war a thing for the history books. “Nothin’ but a Good Time” shouldn’t just be one of the anthems performed in the show, it should be its modus operandi. And yet what sets out to make us smile too often ends up making us wince. Rock of Ages may shout to the rafters, but this is a movie that stopped believing in itself long before it ever pushed play.