The film version of the Broadway jukebox musical Rock of Ages aspires to be to the 1980s what Grease was to the 1950s: a gleefully cartoonish theme park of the era that enthralls tweens with bubble-gum romance and catchy tunes. It also aspires to be a tongue-in-cheek nostalgia fest for people old enough to remember watching Poison and Whitesnake videos on MTV.
But those are two goals that don’t jibe. And, working from a script that substantially revises the book of the 2009 musical, director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) never reconciles them. Unlike the similarly themed Burlesque, which took itself too seriously, Rock of Ages occasionally achieves dizzying heights of camp. That’s a good thing, since inspired silliness is the only possible saving grace for a musical that presents hair metal as a cultural achievement on par with the invention of jazz or rock ’n’ roll.
But the film also has long, boring stretches, most of them involving Julianne Hough (of “Dancing With the Stars”) as a plucky small-town girl who arrives on the Sunset Strip in 1987 with (all together, now!) big dreams. After warbling “Sister Christian” on a Greyhound, she meets a dimply dreamboat (Diego Boneta) who gets her a job at a legendary den of decadence called the Bourbon Room. Her new beau, like her, is seeking rock-star glory. No wonder the club owner (Alec Baldwin) laments, “Doesn’t anyone just want to work in the bar industry anymore?”
Rock of Ages is worth watching mainly for a gaggle of character actors putting broad strokes on their archetypal roles: Baldwin and Russell Brand as the bar’s hapless management; Paul Giamatti as the shyster manager of a megastar whose show could save their cash-poor establishment; Bryan Cranston as the moralizing mayor of Los Angeles; and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his Stepford wife, who embarks on a Tipper Gore-like crusade to rid the city of sin and Spandex. Finally, Tom Cruise plays the megastar, Stacee Jaxx, whom we first see emerging from a cluster of groupies with the sinewy menace of the alien queen from Aliens.
Cruise doesn’t bring anything new to the role of a celebrity addled by his own mythos (and other substances), and his rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” isn’t the showstopper it should be. But he stays deep in this ridiculous character, and his scenes with Malin Akerman, as a Rolling Stone reporter dressed like an extra from Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video, are among Rock of Ages’ high points.
During the actual ’80s (and ’90s), cynical audiences rejected traditional movie musicals in which characters burst into song whenever, wherever, and the form languished. Baz Luhrmann and “Glee” appear to have changed that, and the songs in Rock of Ages — many of them multisong mashups — crop up anywhere and everywhere, from a Tower Records to a strip club to a filthy men’s room. Unfortunately, most of them sound like piped-in soft-rock standards, not the anthems of bad behavior the script tells us they are.
The movie has taken the edge off its Broadway source by turning Hough’s character into a songstress virtuous enough for parents to deem an appropriate role model. Yet it still abounds in raunchy innuendo — a PG-13 balancing act that may not pay off. After all, Grease had John Travolta in his prime. All Rock of Ages can offer to musical-mad tweens is a superstar their dad’s age who insists on taking his shirt off.