Hollywood’s alternative for audiences swamped by superheroes this summer still includes the deployment of spandex, albeit in a slightly more outrageous, yet equally heroic fashion, in the adaptation of celebrated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages.
A young wannabe singer from Kansas named Sherrie (Footloose star Julianne Hough) arrives in LA with hopes of hitting the big time. Robbed of her possessions almost immediately, another aspiring rock star named Drew (Mexican singer Diego Boneta) comes to her aid. He works as a busboy in the Strip’s hottest nightclub, the Bourbon Room (a fictitious version of LA’s infamous Whisky a Go Go) and he manages to get her hired as a waitress, under the proviso she keeps a lid on her career aspirations (it appears that literally everyone else has that same dream).
Her presence at the club comes at as fortuitous time as owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man, manic ex-pat Brummie Lonny Barnett (played by Russell Brand, unsurprisingly, in his element) are in the midst of arranging a farewell performance for legendary rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and his band, before the singer becomes a solo act.
Eager to throw a spanner in the works comes in the form of conservative moral crusader and wife of the mayor, Patricia Whitman (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She parks her unwelcome soap box outside the Bourbon and forms a picket line with the rest of her concerned church group, who have the usual grievances about the club being a conduit for the devil’s music.
From an ensemble sing-along amongst the passengers and driver during Sherrie’s coach trip to La La Land, right through to the grand finale on the stage of a packed out stadium tour, this swirling and frenzied rock pantomime is a heady guilty pleasure from start to finish. Hairspray director and veteran choreographer Adam Shankman manages to capture that ridiculously hedonistic and bloated time in all its mulleted, back-combed glory, framing it within a garish, neon-filled fantasy land which offers something resembling a theme park version of Sunset Strip rather than the real thing.
The serviceable plot exists mainly as a means of providing a link from one music set piece to the next, but the songs (and performers singing them) are woven into the narrative in terrifically inventive and fun ways. The tunes themselves represent a ‘best of’ from many of the iconic bands of that time, some of which are delivered in mash-up versions (a device derived from the stage show) which proves to be a surprisingly effective and far from grating.
The two good-looking leads are perfunctory at best, but they are more than ably supported by (in the film’s greatest asset) a cast who are completely open to embracing the preposterous natureof it all and running with it. Cruise (who was on the way to becoming a megastar himself during that era) is fantastic as the barking mad, burnt-out sex god. He plays that rock cliché to absolute perfection but is also able to provide flashes of a real, jaded human being underneath the mascara and leopard print.
Another surprising stand-out is Catherine Zeta Jones. Her hilarious and fabulously choreographed rebuttal to the evils of rock (scored to Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot) of one of the best sequences in the film. The actress hasn’t been this animated and zesty since his Oscar-winning turn in another musical adaptation, Chicago. It’s almost as if she’s been in self-imposed career stasis between both roles, hoping for that one phone call to breathe life back into her. She’s clearly having an immense amount of fun on screen and it’s infectious.
Shankman manages to insert a couple of satirical swipes about the music biz (Drew’s manager-backed transformation to boy band member is a treat) and that sobering boulevard of broken dreams is glimpsed at through Sherrie’s struggles, which leads her be taken under the wing of a well-meaning strip club proprietor (an underused Mary J. Blige). Mostly though, this is a fun, inconsequential fluff that harks back to simpler times (Drew and Sherrie excitingly scour the many racks of LP’s in the now-defunct Tower Records). It all seems incredibly antiquated now, but serves as a reminder of when music was a more fanciful, yet tangible, experience.
Make no mistake, this is pure, undiluted cheese, but the decade in question was hardly renowned for its subtlety and refinement, and the film’s tagline (Nothin’ But A Good Time) is an honest and succinct summary of what to expect when you walk into the cinema.
Cast aside your preconceived cinematic snobbery and prepare yourself for an unabashedly enjoyable slice of musical escapism which will have you, post-screening, digging out those old Poison and Def Leopard cassettes from storage (or at the very least, downloading the odd tune or two).