The World of The Big Hair Nation, in which leather and spandex-clad musicians elevated their voices and hair to new heights, was as strange a cultural 'blip' on society's radar than I can remember. But dig deeper and you find many of these songs, by bands like Twister Sister, Pat Benatar, Def Leppard, Journey, became important themes for that era, inspiring youth to look beyond their static lives and seek independence at their pace. Watching Rock of Ages took me back to this time, when the hair was tall and rock music itself was on trial for being too violent and out of place with shifting cultural trends.
Based on the Broadway hit, ROCK OF AGES is a story about love, music, and the quirky personalities which took over the world of rock in the late 80's. To be clear, Rock is a musical, but performed in a different and ultimately appealing style. Unlike Grease or Chicago, in which songs were performed in their entirety, everything here is sang in pieces, leaving out most solos and integrating the story into the music. The effect will make audiences tap their toes and laugh at various 80's kitch, even if the story is purposely cliched and runs low on steam at various points along the way.
Stacie Christian (Julianna Hough, Footloose 2011) is a bright-eyed teen from Oklahoma who comes to LA with dreams of hitting it big when she meets bar hand Drew (Diego Boneta). After landing her a job at The Bourbon Room rock club owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock), Stacie and Drew fall in love but not before jumping into several songs with a variety of dancing record store customers, bar hands, and even Baldwin and stage manager Lonny (Russell Brand, Arthur 2011). It's a crazy mix of singing talent, but these and every other song are not meant to be stirring renditions of classic hits. They're meant for toe-tapping, and even humming along (quietly please - you're in a theater). Not everyone's a big supporter of the club, including newly-elected Mayor Whitmore (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) and his Tipper Gore-like wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment), who want to demolish The Bourbon Room and the rest of the Sunset Strip.
Dupree needs a big show to save the club, and its going to take a big name to do it. Enter rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible franchise), who's lost his way to drugs, women, and booze after getting his first big break with Dupree. As Jaxx's manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamattti, Shoot 'Em Up) signs Drew to a big contract, Jaxx meets Rolling Stone reporter Constance Stack (Malin Akerman, Watchmen), and the two engage in one of the funniest singing scenes of the film. Stacie's perverted admission that I Wanna Know What Love Is left me realizing that either I never truly understood this song, or was too naive when it was released. Either way, Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) puts funny new touches on this and other classic tracks, including Baldwin and Brand declaring their love for each other by singing I Can't Fight This Feeling.
There's lots to love about ROCK OF AGES, but there's also some misfires as the story grows too long, dark, and dreary in Act 3. Its 123-minute runtime includes a subplot of Sherrie's attempts to waitress at a local strip club, only to be forced into stripping to pay the bills. Although singer Mary J. Blige appears as the club's owner and helps keep the plot above water with her terrific vocals, it's clear her role would have been more effective as a cameo. To everyone's credit, all the songs are performed by the actors, including Cruise who can flat out sing. In many ways, he and Brand outshine Hough and Boneta because of their over-the-top hilarious performances. While we're here to see Boneta and Hough become successful singers, it's these two other subplots that brought the most laughter from the screening audience.
ROCK OF AGES is not for everyone, and it might not win any Oscars or even crack the top 10 films of the year. But it's funny and full of heart. It's great tongue-and-cheek humor, and sends a powerful message about the popularity of that era which is currently enjoying a revival of interest. Regardless if you're a child of the 80's like myself, a lover of Big Hair Rock, or a fan of Tom Cruise's bare chest and ridiculous codpiece, you'll enjoy the experience. Rock of Ages is rated PG-13 for adult situations.
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