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Knight at the Movies: Rock of Ages
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-06-13

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Sherrie—a young innocent from the sticks heading for L.A. to fulfill her dreams of musical stardom sits on a bus and unable to contain her enthusiasm—bursts into song. A second later, the bus driver and Sherrie's fellow passengers join in.

Stepping off the bus at her destination in the midst of a glittery, neon-lit world, the song becomes a medley; now, prostitutes, petty thieves, tourists and cops join the chorus. Next, Sherrie stands outside her destination—the infamous rock club the Bourbon Room—trying to gain entry into a place packed with metal headbangers; a cute busboy also dreaming of musical fame; and Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the club's owner and manager, respectively, who also let it rip vocally. With a swoosh as over the top as the dancing waters outside the Bellagio in Vegas, the medley comes to a roaring (and predictable) finish.

This is the opening of Rock of Ages, out director Adam Shankman's film adaptation of the Broadway jukebox musical hit. It is so painfully familiar and phony to wised-up audiences that the immediate, derisive laughter and groans that greet it are unsurprising. At this late date, 75 years or so after 42nd Street, the template for all subsequent movies and shows of this ilk (and there are tons of them), how could this reaction not have been expected by everyone connected with the movie down to the folks manning the craft service table?

It's only been two years since the gay-in-all-but-name Burlesque with Cher and Christina Aguilera, but here we go again with another gay director enacting another variation on this Jurassic aged material (just once I'd like to see a girl from the big city head to Kansas in pursuit of her dream of becoming a farmer or cattle baron). Unlike Steve Antin, who helmed Burlesque, Shankman—who choreographs as well as directs—does have spot on musical expertise and he did manage to bring a certain amount of freshness to 2007's Hairspray. So there's a smidgen of hope—even after that calculated opening number—that he'll be able to turn this creaky old tub of a movie in another, fresher direction, too.

However, Shankman doesn't. And he probably couldn't have, given the unsolvable creative dilemma that's the heart of the problem with Rock of Ages: None of the songs, which are drawn from the 1980s power rock genre, has an iota of true feeling. These songs—designed to whip up nameless masses gathered in gargantuan arenas and piped through Mt. Olympus-sized speakers—are not written to be enjoyed for their complexity. They're just supposed to get revved up while screaming "Dude!" at the top of their lungs.

With those kinds of songs being used as your musical score, welded to the oldest of plots, what else can Shankman do other than just barrel through, hoping for the best? Shankman does what any canny director would do with this gut-busting, mind-numbing stuff: He eschews any attempt at subtlety and instead rams the stuff down your throat, packing the scenes with as much heavy metal pomp and circumstance as they will allow. (The sets, costumes, hair and make-up are such exacting reproductions of the late '80s that one can almost smell the hair gel.)

Further insurance comes by casting a mixture of marquee names (Baldwin, Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a conservative zealot, Mary J. Blige as the owner of a gentlemen's club), rising stars (Julianne Hough and newcomer Diego Boneta as the star-crossed, career-obsessed lovebirds), and some really good actors (Bryan Cranston and Paul Giamatti, who stands out as a slimy, big-time rock star manager). Then there is the stunt casting of Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, the rock star who is about to leave his band for a solo career and is convinced to play the Bourbon Room—the place where he started out—and, in the process, save it from bankruptcy.

Cruise enters the movie in a bejeweled jockstrap and leather chaps, buried under four lingerie clad babes in his king size hotel room bed. Rising up from the bed with his long hair, dark glasses and alabaster white skin, swigging on a liquor bottle, and mumbling his few lines while feigning complete indifference to the world around him, Cruise certainly looks and acts the part of a narcissistic rock star. And he sings in a sometimes light, sometimes husky tenor with enough finesse to make you actually believe he could pull off the power rock songs.

But as usual, all of Cruise's hard work goes only into creating the exterior of the character. Ironically, just like the patently phony songs he belts out, there's not one second of his performance that feels real. The most striking thing about Cruise is his shirtless torso with its alabaster skin which is, featured in every scene he appears. It's so omnipresent that after a while you begin to contemplate it. You think, "Pretty good for a guy of 49, actually." But a turn-on? A man irresistible to babes (and perhaps dudes)? Not even close. Playing a debauched rock god desired by millions—a character who would seem to embody the sex, drugs and the rock-'n-roll lifestyle—Cruise is, ironically, the least sexy man in the entire film.

Even Baldwin and Brand—who (SPOILER ALERT) eventually hook up, coming out and coming on to each other while belting out REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" in a not-very-funny parody that seems like an outtake from the Jimmy Kimmel show—are sexier than Cruise's Stacee Jaxx. Hell, even the wooden Hollywood sign (a meeting place for our young lovers) is sexier.

Putting Cruise and the rest of the cast and the dumb plot aside for a moment, at least Hough has a role that offers her more screen time and a greater vehicle for her many talents (plus a song or two) and every time she's the focus the movie briefly, truly glitters. The same can be said for a few other random scenes involving Giamatti, Cranston, etc. However, they are few and far between. Rock of Ages would have been more honestly titled Rock for Ages—because that's how long this headbangers ball seems to go on.

Of related interest: There's more phoniness where Rock of Ages came from. Consider Joyful Noise, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, which stars Dolly "Queen of Plastic Surgery" Parton and Queen "I'm Not Gay" Latifah as rivals for the leadership of a church choir and the loyalty of its members and the populace of the small Southern town they all inhabit. As the duo battles it out, a choir contest that will ensure the financial future of the group's church becomes the proving ground for all concerned. Parton and Latifah are each given some gorgeous numbers to perform and, although the story's just about as phony-baloney as that of Rock of Ages, the enormous vitality and abilities of its two stars help transcend it—as do a raft of truly rousing musical numbers.

The first and final season of GCB (standing for "Good Christian Belles") is also out on DVD and Blu-ray. Kristen Chenoweth; the expert character actor Annie Potts; a batch of blonde female beauties; and a closeted gay character got things started off right in this Southern-fried sisterhood series, a somewhat entertaining, sort of fanciful, fictionalized Real Housewives-type look at the lives of religious and pampered suburban Texas ladies. However, fickle audiences didn't reward the show—which was created by two high-profile gay men: Steel Magnolias playwright Robert Harling (who created it) and Sex & the City creator Darren Starr (who produced it)—with much attention, leading to its quick demise.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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