There’s something to be said for the Mamma Mia!-style karaoke musical: big-named performers doing their own singing (with cheerfully differing layers of skill) over a soundtrack of huge pop hits. Watching movie stars tackle the rigors of this genre is like watching them take a trapeze lesson: a lot of humbling comic pratfalls and, if you’re lucky, a few thrilling moments in the air (cf. Meryl Streep’s performance in Mamma Mia!, which, I’m sorry, rules). Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages, based on the jukebox musical of classic rock anthems, spends very little time airborne, but I respect its pluck. Casting Tom Cruise as a reclusive, possibly deranged ‘80s rock god whose pet baboon brings him Scotch may be the boldest use of the actor since Paul Thomas Anderson made him a rage-fueled motivational speaker in Magnolia.
Not that Cruise’s character, Stacee Jaxx, is onscreen that often in Rock of Ages (co-scripted by Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb, and Chris D’Arienzo, who also wrote the original show). Rather, Stacee is the explicitly phallic pole the rest of the storylines weave around. He’s the lead singer of a band called Arsenal that combines the aggressive machismo of hair metal with the campy theatricality of cabaret. The luxuriantly tattooed Stacee wears backless leather chaps and red light-up codpieces; women faint when he walks by, and his dressing rooms come stocked with lissome groupies, a gong-ringing attendant, and the aforementioned trained baboon. But having reached the level of fame at which he can indulge his every bizarre whim has only made Stacee an isolated, pitiable freak who naps under piles of naked supermodels, mumbles garbled pseudo-profundities in the general direction of rock journalists, and gazes bleakly from the balcony of his suite at the Chateau Marmont.
It’s 1987, and Stacee’s band is about to give their last-ever show at the Bourbon Room, a grotty Sunset Strip rock club that’s run by a crusty old hippie, Dennis (Alec Baldwin, curiously irresistible in shaggy Jeff Bridges mode) and his mulleted rocker sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand). The Arsenal show is all that stands between the Bourbon Room and bankruptcy, but Stacee’s oily Machiavellian manager (Paul Giamatti) seems intent on chiseling the house out of its fair share of the take. Meanwhile, the mayor’s prim wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has launched a Tipper Gore-style campaign to shut down the rock clubs of the Strip, with the legendarily dissolute Bourbon Room at the top of her list.
Finally, in a bland romantic plot that takes up far more of the film than it ought to, Sherrie (Julianne Hough), an Oklahoma ingénue come to L.A. in search of singing fame, falls for fellow Bourbon Room employee and hair-band aspirant Drew (Diego Boneta), who woos her under the Hollywood sign with an acoustic version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’ ” (“I can’t believe you just wrote that!” marvels Sherrie.) Hough and Boneta have pipes and perkiness to spare, but watching them belt out “Jukebox Hero” to each other in an LP-filled Tower Records store feels reminiscent of an American Idol medley or an episode of Glee. Attractive young people enthusiastically covering classic rock songs is hardly a commodity in short supply these days, and a little of Sherrie and Drew’s wholesome head banging goes a long way. (I did enjoy some of the details of the lead couple’s third-act slide into despair, including a conversation in which they attempt to one-up each other’s L.A. abjection stories: “I’m a stripper at the Venus Room.” “I’m in a boy band.” “You win.”)
Once you accept the utter and profound inconsequentiality of Rock of Ages, there’s much to enjoy in it, from Zeta-Jones’ capable hoofing (as a dramatic actress I find her deadeningly dull, but the woman can dance) to Giamatti’s sly performance as a calculating, gray-ponytailed rock impresario. (If only he’d been given a solo song. I would pay a separate admission price to hear Paul Giamatti put over, say, a Judas Priest cover.) In the movie’s most endearingly loopy number, Baldwin and Brand duet on REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” whirling in slo-mo circles around the Bourbon Room back office as they acknowledge their long-suppressed mutual love. It’s a moment that could never have occurred in the 1980s version of this movie (which would probably have starred Patrick Swayze as Stacee Jax), and though the scene is played for laughs, there’s something transportingly romantic about it—they don’t call these songs “power ballads” for nothing.
The real reason to see Rock of Ages, though, is Tom Cruise. He doesn’t sing much, and the one big onstage number he’s given—shredding Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” under a rain of shaken-up beer from the audience—relies heavily on postproduction and backup singing, probably to mask his vocal shortcomings. But especially in his scenes with Giamatti and Malin Akerman (as a Rolling Stone critic who‘s the only one with the guts to call Stacee on his ersatz-Marlon Brando B.S.), Cruise goes to a deep, dark, almost deliberately repellent place I’m not sure he’s ever been before (in Magnolia, maybe, and in a comic mode as the profane studio head Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder). The isolation and paranoia brought on by extreme fame is something Tom Cruise clearly understands from the inside out—and what we know, or think we know, about the actor’s personal eccentricities can’t help but color our understanding of Stacee as well. When Cruise and Akerman have lurid (but still PG-13) sex atop an air-hockey table while singing Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Cruise’s expressions of erotic anguish are like something out of Steve McQueen’s sex-addiction drama Shame, with a hint of tragic drag queen thrown in. Cruise’s portrait of the rock star as empty-eyed nihilist doesn’t really belong in this gaudy pop trinket of a movie—it’s both too outsized and too inward—but that’s precisely what makes for its fascination. Rock of Ages is only recommended for audiences with a taste for highly processed cheese, but it did leave me hopeful that the next decade may see the rise of Weird Tom Cruise.