‘Rock of Ages’ is a bit off key

Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta in 'Rock of Ages'
Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta in ‘Rock of Ages’

Eighties era rock music.  An iconic Sunset Strip club that is struggling to survive.  A rock “god” who got his start there who is willing to help.  A young girl who followed the seemingly nonsensical advice of others to pursue her dream of being a singer and left small-town USA for Hollywood.  A young barback who works at this club, but is pursuing his own dreams of music stardom with his own band.  The wife of the newly elected mayor of the city who is focused on shutting that club down once and for all.

Those are just some of the elements that are mixed together by director Adam Shankman in Rock of Ages, a Broadway musical turned into a movie.

Traditionally, stage musicals are hit and miss on the big screen.  Hits like Chicago and Rent and misses like A Chorus Line.  The things that make a musical great are of course awesome musical numbers (especially the mash-ups), a good story and strong, well-developed characters.  Oh, a “mash-up” is the taking of vocals and music from two big songs and intermixing them, creating a back and forth effect between the two songs to make one number.

With Rock of Ages, Shenkman and the writers of story and music manage to deliver on the music, including the mash-ups, but the story is cheesy and cliched and we’re only treated to one dimension of almost every character.  Worse yet, there are basic gaffes that could easily have been avoided.

Julianne Hough is “Sherrie”.  She’s the focus at the opening when we see her boarding a bus for Hollywood, leaving her small-town life and adoring grandmother behind.  She wants nothing more than to earn her living singing, and she loves music enough that her suitcase carries her favorite albums from the best rock groups of the 80s.  She manages to make it to Hollywood before she gets mugged outside the famous Bourbon Room and has that suitcase stolen.  It is here that she meets “Drew” (Diego Boneta) who is immediately attracted to the vulnerable young beauty and he helps her secure a job at the Bourbon Room as a waitress.  Owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) doesn’t want to hire her, as he knows she’s in town to be a singer, not sling beer, but with one of the other waitresses just having quit, it’s a perfect meeting of needs.

Tom Cruise belts out tunes in 'Rock of Ages'
Tom Cruise belts out tunes in ‘Rock of Ages’

Dupree’s famed nightspot is struggling.  It hasn’t been earning nearly enough to pay all the bills and now he’s got back tax issues.  He’s also got the wife, “Patricia Whitmore” (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the newly elected mayor, “Mike Whitmore” (Bryan Cranston) and the new first lady of L.A. wants desperately to shut down the Bourbon Room once and for all.  She comes off like a Tipper Gore-type who is opposed not just to the music, but the debauchery; however, her real motives and deep dark secrets are revealed late in the film.

But the answer to save Dupree is coming and he and his right hand man/assistant “Lonny” (Russell Brand) know it.  Stacee Jaxx, lead singer of the biggest band in rock is coming to do one show.  The take from this show will bail them out and put them back on a firmer footing.  But first, the opening act drops out.  No problem, Drew’s band will do it, and while Drew is nervous, his time with Sherrie has him ready.  The room is sold out and the show should go off without any more glitches.

Then “Constance Sacks” (Malin Ackerman) shows up.  She’s a reporter for Rolling Stone who has been promised an interview with Jaxx by his manager “Paul Gill” (Paul Giammati), the man who discovered Jaxx long ago right there at the Bourbon Room.  The interview doesn’t go all that well, although the physical encounter between Jaxx and Sacks seems to go quite well.  The problem here is that Drew sees what appears to be Sherrie with Stacee Jaxx post ’encounter’ and believes that his girl has just had the God of rock.  That doesn’t bode well for their future together.

The show is a hit, with Drew outperforming everyone’s expectations and catching the eye of Gill who sees his newest meal ticket and star right there.  See, Stacee Jaxx wants to go solo and while it’s almost assured he’ll continue to be huge, there are no guarantees.  Particularly in the late 1980s (we’re set in 1987, remember?) when some are of the mind that hair bands and hard rock are dying out.  But the future of the Bourbon Room looks very dim when post-show, Gill goes into Dupree’s office, demanding all of the house’s receipts for the night.  When Dupree complains that Jaxx had promised to do this gig for free, Gill laughs, saying “Stacee Jaxx doesn’t take a dump for free” before leaving with all the cash.

There are a lot of questions raised by this point and they are all answered before the finale.  Tom Cruise worked hard to prepare for this role and that effort comes across on the screen as this is one of his best performances in quite some time.  Alec Baldwin is also quite good as the long-suffering club owner who has launched so many stars while barely managing to remain afloat.  But the cheesiness of the story, the uni-dimensional nature of most of the characters and some of the cliches within the tale are only barely overcome by those two performance and the quality of the music.  Had they chosen other, less effective music, this would have sucked out loud.  Instead, it’s worthy of a viewing, and delivers some of its promise, but not the full measure.

I mentioned flaws, and some of these are really nit-picky but…let’s start with Drew and his guitar playing.  Right-handed, but it becomes left-handed for moments during his initial performance on stage.  Very hard to swallow visually.  The film is set in 1987, but there are things (cars, a guitar case, etc) that weren’t around then.  As I said earlier, the choices of music is critical in a film like this and yet three of the songs in the film (“More than Words” “Blaze of Glory”, “I Remember You”) all were released well after 1987.

Someone told me that in one scene where they are walking through the iconic Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip near the club, some of the album covers that are briefly visible were also not released until after 1987.  That there isn’t a mayoral election in 1987 (they were held in 1985 and 1989 in L.A.) is clearly a bit of poetic license that is forgiveable.  So are the slightly inaccurate gas prices on the sign of that Shell station, and yes, there was a Shell station on one corner of the Sunset Strip back in the 1980s (it may still be there for all I know).

But most of the physical mistakes, like cars and songs from the film’s future could easily have been avoided.  For most, they make no difference.  For afficianados of music and autos, they detract from what is already not the best movie effort.

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