Rock of Ages was a surprise hit of the 2009 season, enjoying 5 Tony nominations, including Best Musical. While the show walked away empty-handed in awards season, it is the only musical from that season that is still open, outlasting the likes of Billy Elliot, Shrek, and Next to Normal. With its tongue firmly planted in-cheek, the show never aimed to take itself too seriously, and was just an excuse to rock out to music of your favorite 1980’s hair bands.
Fans of the Broadway show will likely be disappointed to learn that the film adaptation that opened this weekend, despite the same catalog of hit music, bears little resemblance to its stage version. Despite some interesting performances and some well staged numbers,the movie never seems to find its tone, alternating between camp and drama.
And perhaps that’s why I’m so torn on the performance of Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx. Make no mistake, Cruise is the most compelling presence on the screen, and the film languishes until he arrives at around the 30 minute mark. However, this version of Stacee Jaxx is not the light-hearted parody of the hard partying, troubled, frontman. Cruise, at times, plays Jaxx like her were doing a gritty documentary on Jim Morrison, focusing on the inner pain and loneliness that seems so pervasive among huge rock stars. Playing Jaxx like a real person, rather than caricature, is completely at odds with the one-dimensional characters and performances we see throughout the rest of the film.
As the lovestruck leads, Julianne Hough (Dancing with the Stars, Footloose, Ryan Seacrest’s Beard) is a little more country and a little less rock and roll as Sherrie Christian, the small town girl living in the lonely world. Her vocals are very sweet, but lack the edge of a girl who seriously wants to pursue rock music. As Drew, the bar back turned Rock Star, Diego Boneta (Pretty Little Liars, 90210) is more than adequate, although his character ends up getting completely overshadowed by the star power of Tom Cruise, which probably explains why producers didn’t cast a bigger “name” to play the part.
Alec Baldwin is essentially playing Alec Baldwin as the bar owner, Dennis. He certainly can land a punchline, but the performance feels like his 30 Rock character in a greasy wig. Vocally, Baldwin’s enunciates his way through the music like Rex Harrison, but is by no means an embarrassment. Russell Brand is on hand to play Lonny, a character that is certainly cut down in the film adaptation. If you have seen Brand’s hosting gigs at the VMA’s, then you have seen this character, although Brand comes across as a pretty adept vocalist (although there is so much auto tune and post production work being done here, it’s hard to tell if anyone can actually sing).
Paul Giamatti is a standout, as the slime ball manager of Stacee Jaxx and Catherine Zeta Jones certainly knows how to deliver a musical number as the newly added character of Patricia Whitmore.
The most puzzling casting in the movie is R&B legend Mary J Blige, as strip club owner, Justice. Blige, while in fantastic voice, alternately looks like Rick James, Rupaul, and a third-rate contestant on Rupaul’s Drag Race during her screen time. Her character is so cut down in the movie it’s hard to tell why she is even there, although her acting is so atrocious you are almost thankful that it is.
I don’t know the exact running time of Rock of Ages, but it felt about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be. The film is not a must see for musical theater lovers in the same way that director Adam Shankman’s adaptation of Hairspray was. Nor was it as interesting as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. If you want the Rock of Ages experience, see the stage show and wait for this one on DVD.