Picture the kids from Glee trying to channel Def Leppard and you’ll have some sense of the weird culture clash that animates Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical based on a Broadway show. It goes wrong on every level from character and story all the way up to the spirit of rock itself. For those curious what Tom Cruise, in his musical debut, is doing here, the answer is: wearing buttock-baring leather chaps, of course.
Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are the leads and the most boring people you’ll meet in a movie this year, a couple of innocent kids trying to make it in rock while working at a Sunset Strip club called “The Bourbon Room,” a stand-in for the Whiskey a Go-Go. The club owner (a shaggy Alec Baldwin, looking like a used ashtray) and his helper (Russell Brand) face protests from a Tipper Gore-like activist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as well as financial problems they hope to resolve with a free comeback concert by the band Arsenal and its Axl Rose-like singer Stacee Jaxx (Cruise, who co-stars with a giant devil’s head silver codpiece). Jaxx does a backstage interview with a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) that turns into a seduction, the two kids trying to make it in rock break up because of a misunderstanding settled with a ten-second discussion, and background figures like a skeevy band manager (Paul Giamatti) and a strip-club owner (Mary J. Blige) come and go.
The plot is ludicrously thin. Long periods go by in which the characters seemingly forget about their various conflicts; for instance, most of the time, the Baldwin character doesn’t seem much worried about the Bourbon Room’s fortunes. The sole mission of the script is to scramble to set up each rock number: The movie rushes through and mostly destroys dozens of 80s hits that draw heavily from the hair-metal era (big numbers include “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” “Sister Christian,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” etc.). But if you actually like rock, why would you want to hear bland, corny Broadway-style takes on them sung by celebrities instead of real rockers? I don’t doubt Cruise put a lot of work into his vocals, and he sounds on-key, but his high tenor is thin and colorless, nothing like Axl Rose’s glass-cutting wail. Nor does anyone in the movie have Steve Perry’s rasp or Lou Gramm’s richness. There’s a scene in which the actual recording of the Scorpions’ “No One Like You” is playing in the background, and it rocks harder than any of the goofy razzmatazz cover versions of the classics in the rest of the movie.
Moreover, the numbers are thrown haphazardly into the story (about five seconds after Brand’s character tells us he isn’t a singer, he bursts into song; Zeta-Jones’s band of pastel-wearing church ladies talks about hating rock, then lets loose with “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”). Often they’re staged awkwardly; a big number in Tower Records just seems silly and contrived, while in many cases what is meant to be an anarchic sense of humor simply comes across as gross. If you want to see a hopeless romantic sing a love ballad while urinating in a disgusting men’s room, this is your movie.
The director, Adam Shankman (Hairspray), cuts bizarrely and confusingly from one set piece to another without making it clear whether we’re going forward in time, backwards, or whether we’re viewing a fantasy entertained by the character. Nor does he bother to use the numbers to reveal anything about character; it is never clear whether Hough’s sweet Oklahoma girl is dying to let her decadent side out or whether L.A. corrupts and wounds her (by, for instance, turning her into a stripper). Is stripping empowering or demeaning? Neither: It’s just an excuse for some naughty pole dancing.
Not rock-naughty, though; since the movie is locked into a kid-friendly PG-13 rating, there’s little of the debauchery associated with actual rockers. Cruise and Ackerman, panting with lust for each other, do what’s meant to be a steamy duet, but after he takes off his shirt and she strips down to her undies, they just stop and go their separate ways. Like most of Rock of Ages, it comes across as fake, tame and pre-processed for mass consumption. Not that a movie that thinks REO Speedwagon and “We Built This City” qualify as rock has the slightest idea what rock is really about.
Nor does Cruise, who is 20 years too old for this part (when was the last time you saw club-going kids get excited about a 50-year-old rocker?) and seems like more of a control freak than a wild man. The rabbit-fur coat and the cowboy hat can’t conceal the fact that Cruise takes himself way too seriously and approaches this part as hard work requiring intense concentration rather than a lark.
At one point Baldwin squeals, in the campy tone that fills every scene in this wretchedly misguided movie, “Taxes — they’re so un-rock-and-roll!” Yes, and here’s something else that’s un-rock-and-roll: show tunes. Guns ‘n’ Roses was never meant to sound like Guys and Dolls.