“Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rock?” Perhaps predictably, these are the first words we hear in “Rock of Ages.” Surprisingly, the movie’s answer turns out to be a meek “ummm, maybe.”
Don’t let the title fool you: This is not another gospel-goes-pop piece along the lines of Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah’s “Joyful Noise.” “Rock” was adapted from the successful Broadway jukebox-musical that strings together two-dozen 1980s hits to embellish a boy-meets-girl-on-the-Sunset-Strip tale, circa 1987. Stage shows used to get their tunes from what was known as Tin Pan Alley; the numbers in “Rock of Ages” — most of which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who followed Top 40 radio during the Reagan Administration — instead come from Tin Can Alley.
Even though it’s pumped with knowing references to everything from Benatar to Benetton, “Rock” doesn’t have much of the heavy-metal thunder or gritty glitz you might expect from a film that takes its name from a Def Lepard anthem, and it also takes an exceptionally long time to tell what amounts to an absurdly simple story. Director Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) has a devil of a time determining whether he is presiding over a goofy variety show ("Coming up next: Tom Cruise!") that satirizes the eccentricities and excesses of the ‘80s, or aiming for something that’s more complex, a picture that’s simultaneously sincere, sentimental and slightly sleazy. The ‘80s were often criticized as a time when style trumped substance, but “Rock” turns out to be lacking in both departments.
While the formula at work here is not dissimilar from the insanely popular “Mamma Mia!,” which was built on ABBA’s back-catalogue, there are a couple of major differences. “Mamma” reached beyond ABBA’s smash singles to incorporate many compositions that weren’t immediately identifiable, yet complemented the action in the script. But the majority of the songs in “Rock” don’t enrich the plot or define the characters; instead, they announce themselves like mouthy would-be VIPs at the velvet rope. As soon as we begin wondering, "Who originally sang this song?" we are pulled us out of a meandering storyline so feeble and patchy it makes “Mamma Mia!” seem like something by Dostoyevsky. The fact that almost all of these golden oldies were immortalized long ago in videos that played round-the-clock on MTV only complicates matters (can anyone over the age of 35 hear Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” without recalling the scarlet-haired Tawny Kitaen’s suggestive parking lot acrobatics?) since Shankman's visualizations rarely match our memories.
“Rock” brings together Oklahoma-bred, Walkman-wearing cutie Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) — who arrives in Hollywood with a suitcase full of albums by Aerosmith, Lita Ford and The Bangles and, apparently, no stereo on which to play them — and ambitious bar-back Drew (Diego Boneta). They're co-workers in the Bourbon Room, a sort of West Coast CBGB’s that’s run by stubbly chinned impresario Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his zany British cohort, Lonny (Russell Brand). Sherrie and Drew share lyrics and longing glances, but their romance is endangered by the antics of Stacee Jaxx, an amoral, generally incoherent rock superstar with a taste for 150-year-old Scotch and sweet young things. (Puzzlingly, although much is made of Sherrie's first name, neither Drew or Jaxx ever gets around to belting out Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" in the film.)
Jaxx is played by 50-year-old Tom Cruise, a casting choice that seems ridiculous at first. But one of the few shrewd moves director Shankman makes is to turn Jaxx into a cretinous cartoon, a volcano of libidinous energy whose ferocious pheromones inspire fainting spells or hysteria in every woman he encounters (a la Jesse Pearson’s ersatz Elvis in the screen version of “Bye Bye Birdie”). Cruise doesn’t do anything terribly inventive with the part, but he understands the joke and plays along agreeably. He also delivers a rendition of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” that is slightly startling in its intensity and determination. Let there be no question: He. Wants. Your. Sugar.
The same cannot be said for many of the other actors, and when their solos turn sour, the already low-energy "Rock" staggers to a dead stop. Drew, for instance, is supposed to be a guitar god, but Boneta’s overly polished voice, mannered moves and puppy-dog eyes are reminiscent of Rick Springfield, not Bruce Springsteen. He's a hair-tosser, not a head-banger.
As the Tipper Gore-ish anti-smut crusader who tries to board up the Bourbon Room, a strident Catherine Zeta Jones plays to the cheap seats, bulldozing every mildly comic bit. Sure, there’s a laugh or two in watching her belt out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” while wriggling her way through dance moves stolen from Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, but the performance is twice as shrill and three times as starchy as it needs to be.
Groomed to look like a charming combination of Marcia Brady, Olivia Newton-John and the young Meg Ryan, the lissome Hough has better luck, not only landing some of the movie’s rare amusing one-liners, but also confidently selling material like Warrant’s “Heaven” and Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.” (As an in-joke, Shankman positions Hough next to a copy of the original “Footloose” soundtrack in a scene set at a Tower Records store.)
The movie has a tough time finding a way to utilize Mary J. Blige, who turns up in a sketchy knockoff of the part Cher played in “Burlesque,” a seen-it-all survivor of the Strip who presides over what might charitably be called an adult entertainment complex. Even so, Blige brings quiet thunder to "Shadows of the Night" and genuine sizzle to “Any Way You Want It” (the movie’s liveliest set-piece, a paean to "Flashdance" and "Kandyland" that features a bit of jaw-dropping pole-dancing from chorus girls who do Tawny Kitaen proud). Although Malin Akerman, as an ethically challenged Rolling Stone reporter, and Paul Giamatti, as a run-of-the-mill money-worshiping manager, sing a few notes here and there, they’re primarily around for badly needed comic relief.
Instead, the happiest shock in “Rock” comes from its oddest duet: I know I never want to hear another drippy REO Speedwagon "Hi Infidelity" hit again, unless it’s interpreted by those death-defying vocal daredevils, Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin. Forget the trials of Drew and Sherrie -- the song we're waiting to hear in "Rock of Ages" turns out to be "The Ballad of Dennis and Lonny."