NEW YORK – Basically a Mamma Mia! with ’80s hair metal in place of ABBA, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical wrapped in vinyl nostalgia that has been playing to modest but steady business on Broadway for the past three years. However, the headbanger party owes some of its notoriety to Poison frontman Bret Michaels getting accidentally brained during a production number from the show at the 2009 Tony Awards. Nobody gets clobbered in the New Line movie, but perhaps director Adam Shankman should. He succeeds in draining most of the fun from a vehicle that was all about the winking humor of its flagrant cheesiness.
Shankman did a serviceable job on New Line’s 2007 screen redo of Hairspray. But he was handed more winning material and songs crafted expressly to tell a story, not generic anthems shoehorned into a jokey construct.
Working with screenwriters Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb, who adapted D’Arienzo’s original book for Rock of Ages, the director has not found a way to translate the musical’s affectionately mocking humor to film. Shankman lacks a light touch. Only when the invaluable Russell Brand is onscreen — playing a droll variation of his Get Him to the Greek character with a Nikki Sixx makeover — does this bloated, gratuitously star-laden rethink come close to hitting the right tone.
The main attraction no doubt will be Tom Cruise in another stunt performance to pair with his Tropic Thunder role. First seen in bejeweled leonine codpiece, assless chaps and some elaborate ink, emerging from beneath a blanket of hot groupies, he channels Axl Rose as Stacee Jaxx, an out-of-control rock god rarely separated from a bottle of scotch or from the monkey sidekick he calls Hey Man.
The outrageously egomaniacal characterization should be a hoot, but in truth, Cruise’s quasi-mystical sozzled intensity gets wearisome. There’s just too much of him. Instead of one great showcase number (Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”) he gets a string of them. And in the Glee era of Auto-Tune, even his vocal prowess barely registers as a novelty. A role that should have been a tasty extended cameo instead has been built up to crowd the headliners, and frankly, they can’t withstand the competition.
In a film that continually forgets where to focus, those nominal leads are Sherrie (Julianne Hough), an Oklahoma girl fresh off the Greyhound in 1987 Los Angeles, dreaming of stardom as a singer, and Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rocker working as a barback at fictitious Sunset Strip music venue The Bourbon Room (think Whisky a Go Go). Hearts are instantly aflutter when Drew comforts Sherrie after she’s mugged, getting her a waitressing job at the club.
Embodiments of the small-town girl and city boy from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” Sherrie and Drew sing sweetly and make a cute pair of lovebirds, but they’re bland and uninteresting. Even in badass rocker-wear, they look like they belong in a High School Musical sequel, not a sweaty mosh pit.
Running parallel to their obstacle-strewn love story are the efforts of philandering mayor Mike Whitmore (a misused Bryan Cranston) and his family values-crusading wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to shut down The Bourbon and remove the depraved metallurgists threatening the moral sanctity of the city’s children.
In addition to their protests, Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) is dealing with fiscal headaches. He hopes a farewell show before Stacee quits his band to go solo will get the club back in the black. But the rock star’s unscrupulous manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), thwarts that plan. There’s also Stacee’s interview with Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman), a confrontational encounter that makes the rocker reassess his priorities.
In a plodding script that takes two long hours to tell a thin boy-meets/loses/wins-back-girl story in an elusive paradise, none of these threads provides any sense of urgency. That’s because the screenwriters and director run out of fresh ideas in the first half-hour. After that, ADHD sets in as they struggle to keep too many characters in play. Their solution is to load the film with endless multi-character song montages that do little to advance the plot. As a karaoke selection, it yields diminishing returns.
Like the stage musical, the clash between Strip denizens and conservative zealots climaxes in a musical duel that repurposes Starship’s “We Built This City” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” for the respective causes. But there’s insufficient momentum for the conflict to be more than perfunctory.
For someone with a background in choreography, Shankman shows little aptitude for shooting dance numbers. A notable example is Zeta-Jones’ big song, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” While choreographer Mia Michaels borrows signature moves from vintage Pat Benatar videos, Patricia and her backup team of church ladies just look awkward.
Zeta-Jones appears stiff throughout the movie, while pros like Giamatti and Baldwin are wasted. Giamatti’s role relies for humor on ‘80s wardrobe crimes topped by a heinous ponytail, and Baldwin is saddled with a deadening wig as over-the-hill rock disciple Dennis. He shows glimmers of his usual sly comic spark in a handful of moments with Brand as his club technician Lonny, and their duet on REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a high point.
In the stage production, Lonny served as narrator, or “rock conjurer.” Given that the live wire Brand is easily the film’s best asset, expanding rather than diminishing his role here might have been a good idea.
Mary J. Blige turns up late in the action as Justice, den mother of The Venus Club for Gentlemen, where Sherrie takes a job in her hour of need. Blige lends her soulful pipes to a few numbers, but like Cruise, she outstays her usefulness.
Production designer Jon Hutman does a solid job of re-creating 1980s Sunset Strip sleaze, and costumer Rita Ryack hits the right notes in reviving contemporary fashion’s ugliest decade, without going over the top. A handful of rock and pop figures from the period show up in cameos, including Debbie Gibson, Sebastian Bach, Kevin Cronin, Nuno Bettencourt and Joel Hoekstra. But Rock of Ages neither evokes an authentic feeling to celebrate the era nor spreads much joy making fun of it. Instead, it just drones on like a limp cover version.