Mötley Crüe, Poison, Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi. These are names that conjure up an age of big-hair, power-ballads, and hedonistic excess in the Reagan era. Adam Shankman's adaptation of the jukebox musical Rock of Ages trades on our nostalgia for that time, using the songs from the period to fashion an unconvincing, if fitfully amusing, love letter to the spirit of rock and roll.
The movie takes place primarily at the Bourbon Room, a struggling rock club on L.A.'s Sunset Strip owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) who runs the place with his right-hand man Lonny (Russell Brand). They are preparing to mount the farewell concert for the band Arsenal, whose frontman, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), is about to go solo. Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a wannabe singer/dancer from Oklahoma, shows up looking for a job, and, with the help of bartender Drew (Diego Boneta), gets hired at the club. Meanwhile, an ambitious politician (Bryan Cranston) earns points with the public when his religiously devout wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) forms protests and marches to clean up the Sunset Strip and shut down all of the pesky rock-and-roll joints.
Director/choreographer Adam Shankman knows well enough to let the most talented members of his cast do their thing. Baldwin gets most of the best lines, and helps sell the dud ones. He and Brand have the single funniest sequence in the whole film, an earnest duet on REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" that plays like an SNL Digital Short. Paul Giamatti brings a credible amount of oily showbiz sleaze to his role as Stacee Jaxx's manipulative manager, creating a bad guy we enjoy hissing at. Cruise is certainly in his skin playing a man adored by a massive fan base -- Stacee's first big number is "Wanted Dead or Alive" and it's fair to say that Cruise is a much better singer than Jon Bon Jovi is an actor.
However, the main plot is the love story between the bartender who wants to be a rock star and the small-town girl who dreams of making it big, and this storyline never takes off, in large part because Hough and Boneta are so thoroughly bland. They're not untalented -- they can sing and dance and they're pleasant on the eyes, but they don't have the charisma necessary to make a project as ridiculous as this work, and they aren't given any help by the director's uninspired staging.
They aren't the only ones who suffer from Shankman and crew's inability to come up with any compelling musical numbers. Zeta-Jones rightfully won an Oscar for Chicago, this is a woman very comfortable dancing on camera, but her first showpiece scene -- leading a gaggle of middle-age Christian zealots through Pat Benetar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" -- looks like a Zumba class.
There's nothing new about using nostalgia, especially in the form of old hit songs, to sell a product. The phenomenon of the jukebox musical, however, takes this ploy to a new and often purely cynical level. After all, if you get people to pay for tickets to a show where the big selling point is they'll hear songs they already know and love, why bother creating an actual story or compelling characters? Shankman's film has a few laughs, but nobody who adored these songs when they were popular will care for this movie -- the entire idea of a rock musical set in this time and in this place that doesn't have an R rating should be a tip-off to how limp the content will be -- and for those that already have some antipathy towards the genre, their biggest smile will come at the end when they realize that, four years after this movie ends, Nirvana will come along and end all their careers.