Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages reveals the inherent problem with jukebox musicals, namely that story is formulated around songs as opposed to the other way around. In those instances, it typically can’t escape coming off as hopelessly contrived (the only exception I can think of is Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge). One can easily give this movie props for its fine collection of rock ballads, its talented cast, and its overall sense of ‘80s nostalgia. But the screenplay is a mess, repeatedly going off on tangents that are in and of themselves so paper thin that they’re practically transparent. Any semblance of character development, of which there is very little, is at the mercy of tiresome personality clichés that rapidly lose their campy appeal. Worst of all, there are precious few instances in which the songs naturally intertwine with the plot; most of them seem to just pop up out of nowhere and end as quickly as they began.
If you have your heart set on seeing this film, despite everything I’ve just said, here are the only three reasons I can muster for you: (1) The soundtrack is loud, head-banging, and infectious; (2) all the praise Tom Cruise has been getting is very much deserved, as he can sing the hell out of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi; and (3) it’s nowhere near as bad as the last jukebox musical film, the unwatchably embarrassing Mamma Mia! For some, it might also help that it’s adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, which earned five Tony nominations. But none of this amounts to very much in the grand scheme of things. On a personal level, it’s disheartening that this movie was directed by the same man who helmed Hairspray, another musical adaptation that was not only exuberant fun but also one of the best films of 2007.
Taking place in 1987, the film begins with a young woman named Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), who travels by bus from Oklahoma to California with hopes of becoming a famous singer. She arrives at the Sunset Strip in Hollywood with starry-eyed optimism, only to immediately have her suitcase full of vinyl rock albums stolen. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a busboy whose own dreams of rock superstardom are hampered by stage fright. He works at a nightclub called The Bourbon Room and, out of kindness, manages to get Sherrie a job there as a waitress. The owner and his right-hand man, Dennis Dupree (Alex Baldwin) and Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand), know that unpaid taxes leave the club’s future in question. Hoping to generate income, they arrange a concert headlined by Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), an international rock icon. This will be his first solo performance following his split from a hair band called Arsenal.
Years of living life as a music superstar have transformed Jaxx into an eccentric, belligerent, alcohol-dependant shadow of his former self. A journalist from Rolling Stone, the suggestively-named Constance Sack (Malin Åkerman), calls him out on this during a five-minute interview, which ends with a very awkward contextual setting for the song “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Sensing a shift in the musical landscape, Jaxx’s manager, the oily Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), sets his sights on Drew, who’s obviously eager to be famous. By this time, Drew and Sherrie have (1) professed their love for each other, and (2) broken up over Sherrie appearing to have had sex with Jaxx. Sherrie quits her job, only to become a waitress/stripper at a club presided over by a woman named Justice Charlier (Mary J. Blige). At the same time, Drew is groomed by Gill into becoming a member of a pop boy band.
Meanwhile, the highly conservative Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) appeals to church groups in order to protest Jaxx’s upcoming performance and The Bourbon Room itself, which she hopes to have shut down. Her crusade has nothing to do with morality; she has a personal vendetta against Jaxx for reasons I won’t reveal. She isn’t the only one with something to hide. Her husband, Los Angeles Mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), is having an affair with a political intern. As we will eventually discover, neither subplot amounts to much of anything. The Mayor character should have been removed entirely while Patricia should have had a much more prominent role, given the fact that she’s the main antagonist. On the plus side, we are treated to Zeta-Jones’ rendition of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”
As you can see, this movie is narratively all over the map. It doesn’t stay focused on any one subplot long enough for us to fully invest in it. Had the overall plot been narrowed down a bit, perhaps the bountiful selection of songs would have been utilized in a much more effective way. It was wonderful hearing samples from “Sister Christian,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “We Built This City,” “Just Like Paradise,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Here I Go Again,” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” among several others, but never once did they seem like an organic extension of the story; they felt tacked on out of some nostalgic obligation to the audience. The worst song inclusion would have to be “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” sung as an unnecessarily comedic duet between Baldwin and Brand. Rock of Ages is a musical that’s all dressed up with no place to go.