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'Rock of Ages' keeps on rolling

Reeling It In

Posted: June 21, 2012 - 10:16am
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, David James
This film image shows Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in New Line Cinema’s rock musical “Rock of Ages” .

"Rock of Ages"
New Line Cinema
2 hours, 3 minutes

"Rock of Ages" is a brilliant, if deceptively simplistic idea: a Broadway musical where a narrative is described through the greatest rock anthems of the 1970s and 80s. Making the transition from the stage to the screen is almost de rigour for these big budget spectacles, and now it's here. It's like "Tommy" starring everyone except The Who. Also, it's not opera. There is regular spoken dialogue, and much of it's not particularly good.

But when those ballads start, who cares? This is a light-hearted, feel-good, sing-along party aimed directly at the children of the 80s and the following generations who thrive on nostalgia for a time they never knew. "Rock of Ages" is silly, campy, and over the top, and I loved every minute of it.

Well, almost every minute. Director Adam Shankman does allow this hilarious tale of rock 'n roll hedonism to get a tad too crass on occasion, but it's a rarity.

In true American musical fashion, our tale begins with a small-town girl making her way to the big city to grab her share of fame and fortune. The year is 1987 and our heroine is an Oklahoma singer determined to make it in the L.A. music scene. After a curb side mugging, she limps penniless into The Bourbon Room, the most infamous rock 'n roll den in the city, looking for a job. The Bourbon is where the greats made their start, and where a plucky bartender hopes to make his. He's Drew, she's Sherrie, and together they could be the starring couple in every rock anthem from Journey to Bon Jovi.

On the other end of the spectrum is the God of Rock, the legend, the one and only Stacee Jaxx, who's list of hits spans every major tune from "Pour Some Sugar on Me," to "Wanted, Dead or Alive." Jaxx, played with fearless comic bravado by Tom Cruise, is the lead singer of the mega-band Arsenal. But that's all about to change. Jaxx is going solo and The Bourbon Room is going to host Arsenal's final gig.

Add to the mix a high-strung politician's wife crusading to shut down this den of iniquity, a washed up club owner looking for a break, and a scheming agent looking for an angle, and you've got an explosive situation. And explode it does, but not just in the ways you'd expect. "Rock of Ages" is hilarious and heart-warming, sexy and silly, and above all, fun.

The film, and the Broadway musical as well, I'd expect, finds strength in it's casting. The actors have to be able to sing, and to be larger than life. The regular dialogue, more often than not, is terrible, so it's the musical numbers that carry this story. The casting director did their job on this film. The two leads, Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough are perfect in their roles. When they open up and belt it, I wanted to stand up and sing along.

Also great in supporting roles are Catherine Zeta Jones as the moralistic crusading Missus Mayor. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows Jones, with a back-up cadre of uptight women in bad pink pant-suits, challenging a pin-up photo of Jaxx to "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" while dancing down the center aisle of a Baptist church.

Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are hilarious as the aging owner of The Bourbon Room and his crazy protoge, respectively. Baldwin continues to prove, the later in his career it gets, that comedy is where he belonged all along. And Brand, often obnoxious to the point of irritation, reins it in and turns in a very likeable, funny performance.

Good as well are Paul Giamatti and Malin Ackerman, but no one can hold a candle to Tom Cruise as Jaxx. Not only is his singing voice good, but his willingness to throw himself into such a ridiculous, potentially embarrassing role is unparalleled. Jaxx is dripping with sexual energy, but cloaked in a booze-soaked leather-clad haziness. The combination is drop dead hilarious, especially in an exchange with Baldwin about the coming show where it's unclear whether or not Jaxx actually intends to "burn this place to the ground!" The closest thing I can come to a similar performance, not in style, but in commitment, is Cruise's brief but memorable turn as Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder." The cast is great, the songs are great, but "Rock of Ages" would be worth seeing for Tom Cruise alone.

As much as I enjoyed this film, I can't understand the negative reaction it's getting from the movie-going public and the critics alike. Rex Reed wrote that he hadn't seen a movie this bad since "Howard the Duck." Really? I know he's kind of a crank, but a movie that's as fluffy and inoffensive as this, combined with a slew of crowd-pleasing, lighter-waving musical numbers feels too friendly to hate. Yes, there is much that's sub-par in this movie, but all the sour notes are mere background noise compared to the joyous energy of the majority of the film.

If you, like Joan Jett, love rock 'n roll, you can't help but love "Rock of Ages."

Grade: B

"Rock of Ages" is rated PG-13 for language and sexuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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