Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ loves rock ‘n’ roll

A triumph of genial impudence over good sense and better taste, “Rock of Ages"is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Blessed with unstoppable energy, an undeniably bawdy sense of fun and Tom Cruise in backless leather pants, it takes songs you may never have loved and turns them into a musical that’s easy to enjoy.

Those tunes, undying anthems like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” come courtesy of the 2009 musical tribute to 1980s rock that was nominated for five Tonys and is still playing on Broadway.

Enthusiastically directed by “Hairspray’s” Adam Shankman and written by play writer Chris D’Arienzo with help from Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, the movie “Rock of Ages” adds characters and tinkers with the personalities of others, but the core of the enterprise remains the same.

Its essential sweetness leavened by knowing winks, “Rock of Ages” succeeds as well as it does because of its unlikely combination of a guileless, thunderously clichéd boy-meets-girl plot structure conveyed in a sophisticated, showbiz-savvy style.

The film is also filled with actors willing to dive headfirst into their roles and take the endeavor’s inherent foolishness seriously, all with an eye toward enhancing the audience’s fun. And though “Rock of Ages” is very much an ensemble film, its success is grounded in Cruise’s fearless work as ultimate rock god Stacee Jaxx.

Before we get to Mr. Jaxx, however, the young lovers must be brought on stage, starting with aspiring singer Sherrie Christian (“Footloose’s” Julianne Hough). The year is 1987 and Sherrie is taking a Greyhound bus from her home in Oklahoma direct to the Sunset Strip, accompanied by a single suitcase that apparently contains nothing but her LP record collection.

Sherrie doesn’t speak her thoughts on the bus; in the best musical tradition she sings them, with the driver and other passengers joining in, letting us know that this film doesn’t plan to be bound by the constraints of pedestrian reality. Neither does Sherrie, who is so entranced by the grungy Strip that she belts out David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise.”

Soon enough Sherrie meets fellow squeaky-clean would-be rocker Drew Boley (the debuting Diego Boneta), who shows her where Tower Records is and gets her a job working with him at the Bourbon Room, the movie’s pumped-up version of the Whisky a Go Go.

Because it’s inevitably going to take the entire film for these made-for-each-other kids to work out their predictable issues, “Rock of Ages” is happy to provide a sterling group of supporting actors to keep us entertained, starting with Alec Baldwin as the owner of the Bourbon Room and Russell Brand as his trusty right-hand man.

The Bourbon may be packed every night, but it is losing money, which is why the club approaches Stacee Jaxx to do a benefit. Enter not only Stacee but also his slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) and a fetching Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) whose tough questions get under the rocker’s skin.

Presumably modeled on the likes of Axl Rose, Steven Tyler and Jon Bon Jovi, Stacee Jaxx makes women faint — literally — when he walks into a room. Heavily tattooed and heroically self-absorbed, with a capuchin monkey for a pet and a devil’s head codpiece for his leather pants, the lead singer of Arsenal oozes wicked charisma in the most wasted way, and it’s Cruise’s deadpan work that makes the man so entertaining to observe.

Previous roles like agent Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder” have demonstrated Cruise’s affinity for over-the-top characterizations, and no Actors Studio adept ever threw himself into a part with more zeal. Cruise even took intensive singing lessons — he apparently has a four-octave range — to effectively belt out songs like Bon Jovi’s"Wanted Dead or Alive” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Equally committed to her role as Patricia Whitmore, the God-fearing wife of the Los Angeles mayor, isCatherine Zeta-Jones. Whitmore, a character invented for the film, is determined to reclaim the evil Strip for the city’s abstemious citizens.

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” the dance number Whitmore and her cohorts do to the Pat Benatar song, is an example of the unexpected burlesque settings “Rock of Ages” dreams up for its songs. Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is set in a wild sex scene, the group’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” starts at a urinal, and to describe what’s done withREO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” would ruin the fun.

Fun is definitely the byword here, manufactured by accomplished filmmaking all around, with a special nod to the costumes of Rita Ryack and Mia Michaels’ choreography. Just like the song says, they built this city onrock ‘n’ roll, and that can’t be bad.


‘Rock of Ages’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language

Running time: 2 hour, 3 minutes

Playing: In general release