‘Rock of Ages’: Can’t fight the feeling

June 14, 2012

“Rock of Ages” is technically a jukebox musical: a stage presentation of comedy, drama and song in which, instead of using original songs, the writers build a story out of existing music, re-purposing it to retrofit a plot or a plot point. Think “Mamma Mia.”

But really, the jukebox that matters is the list of songs on videogames like “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero.” They seem to make up the soundtrack for “Rock of Ages,” both in its long-running Broadway incarnation and now in the new film version.

I’m too much of a snob to go see “Rock of Ages” on stage, but I’ll admit to having fun – and even laughing a few times – at Adam Shankman’s movie version. It offers a view of the music business – from fans up to the top talent – that is both outlandishly exaggerated and surprisingly adroit. And it features one of the outstandingly out-there performances in Tom Cruise’s career.

And as for that soundtrack, it amounts to an accretion of the kind of cheesy globules that clogged the arteries of the pop music charts during this period (the film starts in 1987). Journey, Pat Benatar, Def Leppard – sort of a who’s who of the early days of MTV, for better or worse.

So here is my dilemma: How can I admit I enjoyed myself more than I expected to at a movie that celebrates and further enshrines music I tend to hate?

I’ll further cop to the fact that I was primed to dismiss this movie, just as I dismiss most of the music on which it’s built. But I can’t dismiss it. While my opinion of the music hasn’t changed, I had fun watching the movie.

Granted, as a tale of teens fighting to make it in an unjust world, “Rock of Ages” is pretty toothless. The model here is, at least, partly “Hairspray,” either the John Waters original or the Broadway musical (which was made into a film by “Rock of Ages” director Adam Shankman). But “Hairspray” had the actual villain of racial prejudice as part of its conflict.

“Rock of Ages,” however, takes as its boogie-man a group of conservative housewives, based on the ones led by Tipper Gore, then the wife of a young Tennessee senator, who lobbied to get labels placed on record albums (remember those?) warning of obscene content. So, in this film, a conservative female group fighting the evils of heavy-metal becomes the paper tiger against which the forces of rock’n’roll must battle.

There’s also the eternal struggle of the heart, here represented by two would-be singers, Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), who both work wage-earner jobs at L.A.’s biggest heavy-metal club, the Bourbon Room. The Bourbon is run by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), who, along with sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand), has managed to book two special gigs by metal superstar Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who got his start at the Bourbon Room.

There’s some minimal plot about Dennis facing tax problems and a threat by the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to close the Bourbon Room down on grounds of immorality. And there are romantic misunderstandings between Drew and Sherrie, who eventually figure out that they should be singing together.

But the plot is mostly an excuse for the various cast members to launch into songs from the “Power Ballads of the 80s” songbook. The playlist includes everyone from Jefferson Starship to Def Leppard, from Journey to Poison to Pat Benatar.

And that’s where the film’s real fun lies. The music is repurposed with a purpose, with each number given imaginative choreography and story-telling moments that surprise and amuse.

I giggled at the love duet between Baldwin and Brand on “Can’t Fight the Feeling.” And I laughed out loud at Zeta-Jones leading a high-kicking group of Junior League types through an angry, aggressive dance version of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

Still, it’s Cruise who steals the film as the high-flying, always-elusive star, Stacee Jaxx, who wears leather pants slung from the world’s lowest hips – and little else – the perfect frame for his elaborate tattoos. And Cruise adapts the perfectly timed, pause-laden affect of someone who is either incredibly wise or incredibly loaded. But he can bring it as a singer, romping through “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” among others.

Do I think “Rock of Ages” is a good movie? No, not particularly. But did I have a good time watching it? Yeah – to a surprising extent.

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