Rock of Ages opens Friday throughout the Triangle (see times below)
Although a child of the 1980s, I never wore a mullet or a Def Leppard T-shirt. My only exposure to Whitesnake was watching Tawny Kitaen gyrate on the hood of a Jaguar in their music video for “Here I Go Again.” But while my youthful musical tastes skewed toward R&B and pop, there’s an underappreciated lyricism to much of ’80s glam metal: “An’ here I go again on my own/ Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known/ Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.”
So, anyone lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time may feel that it don’t get better than the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, a celebration of ’80s pop metal and the Sunset Strip music scene. Anyone lookin’ for a good movie, however, bought tickets to the wrong show.
This story of a countercultural nightclub trying to thwart outside forces bent on shutting down them and their “Freedom, man!” is as hoary as vinyl records. Set in 1987, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man Lonny (Russell Brand) run The Bourbon Room, a rollicking Hollywood dive, and they are feeling pressure from the city’s new mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his Bible-thumping wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Dennis’ last hope is the big gate he’ll earn when the band Arsenal gives a farewell concert before Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), its loopy lead singer, goes solo.
Against this backdrop of civic intolerance, Julianne Hough plays Sherrie Christian, a small-town gal who falls for a hunky kid. Yes, it sounds just like Footloose, just as you might remember Burlesque when Sherrie resorts to working in a strip club under the tutelage of its manager (Mary J. Blige).
While the soundtrack may have your toes tapping, that makes Rock of Ages little more than Pandora with a pulse. The songs are shoehorned into the rickety plot, and director Adam Shankman’s staging is slapdash and silly, as if he was assembling a hair band-themed amusement park ride. Although the storylines for musicals are typically broad, screenwriters Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb and Chris D’Arienzo make a number of regrettable alterations to D’Arienzo’s original book, most of them designed to make Sherrie more virtuous and Stacee more redeemable. Not to mention the substitution of Zeta-Jones’ haughty harridan as the easy conservative punching bag.
The performances, already drained of the essential energy of a live setting, are hit-or-miss. While Hough’s voice is uneven, Diego Boneta ably carries his tunes as busboy and aspiring singer Drew Boley. Brand and, unsurprisingly, Blige hold their own; Baldwin and Paul Giamatti (as a skeevy record producer) make cats howl. But the unquestioned savior of this inert revue is Cruise’s portrayal of the Dionysian Stacee Jaxx as a cross between Bret Michaels and Jim Morrison. Besides ably executing vocally demanding numbers like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Cruise nearly salvages the show as a baked, self-obsessed talent clad in furs and a satanic codpiece, accompanied everywhere by a pet monkey named Hey Man, and barely in touch with reality, much less the spirit that made him a star in the first place.
Unfortunately, such it is with Rock of Ages, a detached revival geared for Generation Glee more than Gen X.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Pour some sugar on me.”