Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), while interacting with a Rolling Stone reporter played by Malin Akerman, works his way through a series of hand signals. The penultimate signal, the iconic two finger rock and roll salute, morphs into the universal insult the one finger salute. I giggled, and had an epiphany. Rock of Ages is a tongue in cheek, cynical, indictment of the music industry. The music is 1980s but the frustration is contemporary. Music is a business, replete with sleazy managers, self-indulgent artists and sycophantic hangers-on. Rock of Ages made me think of Mash. That film, written to protest America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, was set during the Korean War. Rock of Ages uses the ’80s to chastise contemporary music.
I am particularly qualified to answer the question, “Do you have to like ’80s rock and roll to enjoy this film?” During the 1980s I was listening to country music with a smidgen of classical music. That said, the song choices are so iconic that even I recognized a tune or two. The man behind the film’s music is Adam Anders, the master of Glee mash-ups. No one knows how to cover a song like Mr. Anders. However he is only as good as the singers with whom he must work.
Julianne Hough plays the ingenue. Naive young girl from a small town comes to LA to make her dream of being a singer come true. Hough is prototypically American, blonde, blue-eyed and annoyingly nasal, as only an American girl can be. Her voice isn’t strong enough to carry the great rock anthems she is asked to sing. Diego Boneta plays Drew, Hough’s love interest, and an aspiring rocker. His voice is more powerful than Hough’s. From the shoulders down, however, heis as stiff as a Stratocaster. The rock swagger is missing.
The best voices for the music were Mary J Blige, and, believe it or not, Russell Brand and Alex Baldwin. Mary J Blige may not be a surprise, but Russell Brand and Alex Baldwin? (I think my keyboard is going to explode.) Tom Cruise impressed with his swagger. His voice was powerful, but lacked the quintessential rough edge that Brand and Baldwin delivered. The duet Cruise sang with Akerman, however, was pitch perfect. That one caused chills.
Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) knows the challenges of adapting a Broadway musical to film. His choreographer was a So You Think You Can Dance colleague, Mia Michaels. With the exception of the strip club scene, I found the choreography undermined the ’80s feel, especially during the rock performances. Mr. Shankman, as director, is ultimately responsible for that disconnect.
Rock of Ages unexpected undercurrent of cynicism could make this film the first chick flick that guys will enjoy.