The strength of any good musical is in its music. Where would The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast or Phantom of the Opera be without their iconic music? The music of those classics did not start out as iconic though, it took years of adoring audiences to elevate them to that level. In that regard, Rock of Ages starts out on unfair footing, utilizing some of the most iconic songs of the 1980s pop and rock scenes. The music in Rock of Ages is both its primary strength and its primary weakness.
The narrative in Rock of Ages is shallow and riddled with clichés, as such the film relies heavily on nostalgia for its music and the charisma of its star studded cast to keep its audience enraptured. Some will cite the narrative as a fault but being as Rock of Ages is a musical depicting a caricature of the music scene in Los Angeles in the late 1980s; I feel it is both perfectly shallow and effectively riddled with clichés. The story in Rock of Ages is just the glue that holds the amazing musical set pieces together but they may not be amazing if you do not hold the proper nostalgia for the music in play.
Fortunately, the cast that director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) has assembled is fully on board with selling the music. Primaries, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are both well cast as the young dreamers that the narrative focuses on. They have great stage presence, solid voices and an understanding that despite being the focus of the narrative that they are not the “stars” of this show. No, the stars of Rock of Ages are the likes of Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston, Russell Brand, Malin Akerman and of course Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx. Every one of these actors has multiple scenes that would steal the show in any other musical, they are all that good.
However, it is Cruise’s presence that dominates the film. Cruise portrays Jaxx as a cross between the public personas of Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose and Poison’s Brett Michaels, and the performance is so anti-Cruise-like that it amazes me how much he really bought to the role. He is sleazy, repulsive, endearing and captivating all at the same time. He is fully believable as the ultimate rock and roll star, something I do not think anyone would have thought possible going into this film. No matter what one wants to say about his public behavior, Rock of Ages proves that Tom Cruise is still one of the best actors in the game, if not the best.
The advertising tag line for Rock of Ages has been “Nothin’ but a Good Time” and in a summer filled with prototypical summer blockbusters where everything blows up and the good guys once again beat the bad ones, it is an honest breath of fresh air. Shankman’s vision and ultimately the musical’s vision of the era is one of a fun, care-free, decade of excess. It is not realistic in the slightest but that is kind of the point, right? Rock of Ages strips away the realities of life and just delivers a good time. Like a good concert, it asks audiences to leave their baggage at the door for two hours, clap their hands and sing along to the music because everyone knows the words. And that’s how it should be, nothin’ but a good time.
4 / 5