Toward the end of “Rock of Ages,” just before he gets punched in the face by a baboon, the sleazy talent manager played by Paul Giamatti confronts the young musician hero, Drew (Diego Boneta). “Rock is dead!” he shouts, whereupon everyone else in the cast joins forces to prove him wrong by launching into. . . “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the Journey chestnut that the last five years of popular culture have beaten into the ground.
Despite that defiant final stand, Giamatti’s pronouncement is pretty much on the money. Rock is dead, and this corporate nostalgia cruise of a musical — as far from the unfettered spirit of Elvis and the Ramones as can be imagined — is the proof. Yet the movie has its cheesy pleasures, and some of them are even intended. I’m just not sure whether Tom Cruise’s impersonation of Axl Rose is one of them.
It’s pretty simple: If the hair metal of the Reagan era has any meaning to you — if songs like “Just Like Paradise” and “I Wanna Rock” conjure up endless late-night drives during senior spring — you’ll probably enjoy “Rock of Ages,” which has been adapted from the 2009 Broadway jukebox musical. If your tastes run to either side of the 1980s, you should make other plans.
Director Adam Shankman managed to jolt new life into the big-screen version of Broadway’s “Hairspray” and he struggles to do the same here. The opening scenes of “Rock of Ages” offer hope that an enjoyably ridiculous time may be at hand: Sherrie (Julianne Hough), the Oklahoma twinkie who wants to be a rock ’n’ roll star, sings “Sister Christian” as her bus pulls out of town, and one by one, her head-bobbing fellow passengers join in. We laugh, but, wait, are we supposed to? The movie tries to keep us guessing for as long as possible.
Which isn’t very long, actually. Still, screenwriters Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb, and Chris D’Arienzo play loose with D’Arienzo’s musical book, jettisoning some characters, adding others, undercutting the corn with comic subversions where they can. When Drew launches into Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” his power ballad for Sherrie, he’s taking care of business at a urinal.
There’s nothing the writers or director can do about the deadly dullness of these two leads (at least Boneta can sing) or their perfectly cliched dialogue (Drew looks up at the Bourbon Room’s marquee and vows that “someday my name will be up there”), so they fill the movie with bigger stars doing weirder work. Alec Baldwin, looking like something Lester Bangs’s cat dragged in, plays the club’s rawk-lovin’ owner, Dennis. Russell Brand plays his comic sidekick, Lonny, with Ron Wood’s hair. At one point, these two decide they’re in love and sing a tremulous version of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” — it’s hilarious at the same time it makes you realize that playing gay has become the new blackface.
Bryan Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad” and every movie made in the last two years) is the city’s opportunistic new mayor and Catherine Zeta-Jones plays his God-fearing, metal-hating wife, who looks like Pat Benatar dressed in Nancy Reagan red and who wants to shut the Bourbon Room down. Zeta-Jones even gets to belt Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in the film’s low point, a klutzy, over-edited S&M dance number set in a church. “Chicago” notwithstanding, Zeta-Jones can dance about as well as Giamatti can sing, which is about as well as Mary J. Blige can act.
Yes, Blige is here, too, in a desperate attempt to inject soul into a white-on-white musical genre. She plays the owner of the strip club where Sherrie ends up working, but don’t fret — it’s one of those PG-13 strip clubs where women keep their clothes on and where pole-dancing is an act of feminist empowerment celebrated by Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”
Without question, the oddest and most absurdly watchable special effect in “Rock of Ages” is Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, the movie’s decadent rock god. Who knew when Cruise slid into the living room all those years ago, lip-synching to Bob Seger in his tighty-whities, that we’d end up here? Because the actor has never done anything halfway, from acting to falling in love, Stacee is the most intensely focused burn-out in the history of rock. It’s like watching Lance Armstrong’s impersonation of Jim Morrison.
Stacee’s something to behold — whippet thin in furs and bandannas and tats and (look away!) leather chaps without a tighty-whitey in sight. Cruise sings credibly in a roaring tenor that lacks the razorblade gargle of the real thing, but he turns Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” into something between a freak show and a motivational seminar. This has officially become the strangest career in Hollywood.
Otherwise, “Rock of Ages” is exuberant, silly, overlong, sexist; it’s clever in little matters and proudly dumb in the things that should count. There are cameos for fans of the stage version (the play’s original Drew, Constantine Maroulis, pops up as a record executive) and of ’80s pop (is that Debbie Gibson in a crowd scene?). Yet despite its amusements, the movie’s as genuinely dangerous as the music it celebrates, which is not at all. Welcome to the new karaoke night: “Rock of Ages” desecrates three grand traditions — Broadway musicals, movie musicals, and rock ’n’ roll — but you’ll still come out humming the tunes.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.