I Wanna Rock!

It’s not the worst movie ever made. In fact, it’s kind of fun. But, yes, it’s bad. (Here’s the LGBT Weekly link.)

In the first few minutes of 1980s-set pop-rock musical Rock of Ages, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) climbs onto a bus to Los Angeles, flips through her collection of power pop rock albums, rereads a good luck note from her grandmother, sighs hopefully and starts singing – along with the entire bus – Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” one of the greatest bad songs of all time. And I laughed out loud. And then I was confused; was I supposed to find this funny? The answer was yes; but it took me too long to decide.

Hough is such a weak actress, and an even weaker comedian, that I couldn’t figure out whether she was trying to be funny as a parody of the girl with big dreams and a suitcase, or whether she was trying to be that actual girl. The exact same thing happens when we’re introduced to her love interest Drew (Diego Boneta), another wannabe star played by another plastic unknown. Even though it’s nearly impossible not to sing along to “Waiting for a Girl Like You” or “I Love Rock and Roll,” the boredom of Drew and Sherrie’s romance during the first 20 minutes of themovie is only broken by the quick quips of Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin, playing the manager and the owner, respectively, of the rock club where Drew and Sherrie work. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the moral crusader out to destroy the club, does “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” with a bunch of church ladies, and it’s not bad. But it’s not enough to make up for Sherrie and Drew.

And then Tom Cruise shows up.

When Cruise was cast as Stacee Jaxx, the Axl Rose-like rock god around whom much of the non-romance plot revolves, there was a collective WTF on the Internet. Cruise is an action star and a great romantic comedy lead and often a great dramatic actor, but in a musical … really? Director Adam Shankman casting Cruise as Stacee was much, much weirder than when he cast John Travolta as Baltimore matron Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. At least Travolta can sing and dance.

It turns out Tom Cruise can sing too, and really well. More importantly, he doesn’t treat Stacee as a parodic joke, but rather as a multilayered, drunken and disturbed megastar whose behavior is weird, creepy and oftentimes very funny. The performance is perhaps braver and – with the sex scenes, stage prancing, wild gesticulations – more physically explosive than when he played the penis-obsessed motivational speaker in Magnolia and received his third Oscar nomination. Cruise is so good that when he wasn’t onscreen, I was just deflated.

Yet, Rock of Ages somehow manages not to be a bad movie featuring one preciously amazing performance. As dull as Sherrie and Drew are, they both can deliver on the songs; Drew’s “I Wanna Rock” is particularly epic. Shankman, along with choreographer Mia Michaels, stage the many familiar songs with the kind of joy, creativity and precision that allows something as ridiculous as the all-cast performance of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” to be a plot-powering showstopper. Mary J. Blige, who plays the strip club owner, can’t act her way out of a bag. But when Shankman throws her into a song, it becomes clear: Hip-hop empress-status notwithstanding, Blige was born to sing “Shadows of the Night.” Sorry Pat Benatar. Mary J now owns your classic ’80s ballad.

Shankman also pulls off a gay subplot with great skill. The unexpected scene when the two men proclaim their love is both so funny and so sweet, and the song so perfect (Air Supply’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”), that when the kiss happened, the audience at my screening burst into cheers and applause. That was the only thing more surprising than Tom Cruise’s performance as Stacee Jaxx.

Rock of Ages
Directed by Adam Shankman
Written by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb
Starring Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, and Tom Cruise
Rated PG-13
Opens June 15 at your local multiplex

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