If your memories of the ‘80s are as hazy as the Aqua Net cloud that always surrounded you back then, you’re in luck. Rock of Ages, the big-screen adaptation of the big-hair Broadway musical, recalls the decade in all its head-banging, hilarious glory.
As the opening credits fade, we meet Sherrie (Julianne Hough of Footloose fame), a pretty singer who’s hopped a Greyhound to Hollywood but gets robbed right after she steps off the bus. Fortunately, a young man named Drew leaps (literally: this is a musical) to her aid, finagling her a job at his workplace. Soon Sherrie’s waitressing at the city’s hottest rock venue, The Bourbon Room, and cooking up a romance with Drew.
We spend the next two hours watching the couple chase fame while falling in and out of love. They’re not the only ones struggling on the Strip, though. The Bourbon’s owner (a whisky-soaked Alec Baldwin) is facing bankruptcy. His sole hope lies in Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), an addled superstar who may or may not play the club, depending on his mood and sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti). But even if the concert comes off, the show might not go on: L.A.’s mayor and his priggish wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) want to stamp out heavy metal and hard partying.
These humorous subplots, set to a backbeat of ‘80s ballads, move the film steadily forward. You’re likely no foreigner to Foreigner, but you’ll never take their maudlin lyrics seriously again after you hear Drew belt them out in front of a urinal. Sherrie’s descent into pole dancing puts Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night”, ironically, in a whole new light.
The true marvel, though, is Tom Cruise as Stacee. You might think that at 49, he’s too old for the role, but his writhing torso says otherwise. (Incidentally, Cruise does his own singing. No word on how much he was auto-tuned, though.) His considerable acting chops are on full display too, as he blithely trashes rooms and whispers inscrutable musings with a spot-on, steely intensity.
In fact, nearly all the characters nail their roles, making the exceptions especially lamentable. Zeta-Jones, for one, is far too campy, as though lockjaw and clenched fists are a prerequisite for conservatism. Clad in a red pantsuit and American-flag brooch, she’s also anachronistic, a Sarah Palin send-up instead of a take on Tipper Gore. (Her character is a write-in—the producers claim they wanted to explore the censorship of the era. But given the way the film glosses over other 80s issues, like drugs and AIDS, it’s a weak excuse.)
Even more disappointing is newcomer Diego Boneta as Sherrie’s boyfriend. Put bluntly, his horse-face wouldn’t make make girls throw panties, or even neon leg-warmers. Delivering his lines with banality and a dopey look in his eyes, he reminds one less of Johnny Depp than a 21 Jump Street walk-on…after the show flipped to syndication.
Fortunately, there’s other eye (and ear) candy, and some unexpected romantic twists. Will Drew and Sherrie persevere? I won’t spoil it. But yes, of course the movie ends with everyone singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And yes, you knew we were all headed there from the moment the movie began. What can you say? In a flick like this, it’s not about the destination. It’s about the Journey.
Note: Lewd and lascivious moments galore make this movie, in my opinion, unsuitable for kids under 13. If you take yours, be warned — he’ll see more tongue (albeit sandwiched with wry humor) than at your local kosher deli counter.
Scarsdale resident Deborah Skolnik is a mother of two and a senior editor at Parenting magazine.