You know when a film begins with a busload of strangers joining in a corny rendition of “Sister Christian” that you’re in for a high-camp moviegoing experience, and Rock of Ages certainly doesn’t disappoint in that department.  The tale of an innocent Tulsa bimbo who casts caution to the wind to try to become a singing sensation in picturesquely sleazy L.A., Rock of Ages is definitely true to the 80s at least in its willingness to plunge into the over-the-top outbursts of feeling at any moment, and is never ashamed of being what it is: essentially a feature-length narrative music video version of a Broadway musical and a love letter to the long-gone but not forgotten hard rock and power ballads of the time.

Full of energetic visual orchestration in scenes lit with wonderfully period-faithful pinks and blues, it achieves a greater emotional impact by setting itself in the late 80s, when hard hair rock was still at the top but about to go into eclipse as the 90s loomed, like a snapshot of a great civilization on the verge of collapse.  What sounds on paper like an utter waste of celluloid – and I’ll confess to having gone into this one expecting a shamelessly cutesy mercenary rock wreck – actually ends up being flawless and instantly classic.  The songs, with obvious affection, have been selected and utilized thoughtfully, contributing integrally to the storytelling and character development.  Visually as well as sonically sharp, Rock of Ages is fine-tuned cinema, so that the unsung stars of Rock of Ages are the choreography, art direction, and especially the editing, which weaves the meaningful singing, dancing, and involving melodrama into a beat-perfect winner.

The emotional centerpiece of the film may be Tom Cruise and Malin Akerman’s duet rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is”, which manages not only to be rousing musical moment, but also a genuinely touching, sexy, and humorous lovemaking scene.  Watch it and you, too, may find yourself wanting to know what love is.  Verging on absolute crudity but simultaneously heart-stabbingly sweet, this is romance as it ought to be filmed: creatively, dangerously, and with a true sense of supernatural abandon and harmonious wonder.

So much is right with Rock of Ages that I’m willing to forgive and even embrace its various eccentricities.  For one thing, the cast down to the last man is made up of people I never would have imagined I wanted to see in a tribute to 80s rock.  A special “What Am I Doing in This Movie?” Award goes to Mary J. Blige, who  nonetheless lends vocal heft and an air of experience in her role as the manager of a strip club where Julianne Hough lands a gig.  Cruise, at least, is an iconic 80s actor, and thus would seem to be only vaguely relevant to the material; but the casting of Cruise turns out to have been the perfect choice as he channels just the right mix of cocky success and sexiness gone to seed with untapped human depth, so that his performance ends up being one of the film’s major endearments.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Paul Giamatti offer high-caliber ham antagonism of the Tipper Gore sanctimoniousness and soulless corporate parasite varieties, respectively, with Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston rounding out the villainy as L.A.’s crooked mayor determined to kill the strip at the bidding of his prudish wife.  Fresh-faced Diego Boneta, meanwhile, is cute and compelling as a bar band  singer longing for rock godhood as “Wolfgang von Colt”.  Julianne Hough’s singing may be slightly too faux-soulful and Britney-bratty to be exactly faithful to the 80s, but she’s touchingly sweet and plays a naive Oklahoma girl convincingly.

Harmless but also anachronistic and not really relevant to 80s rock as its fans would probably prefer to remember it is the wholly superfluous gay romance at the movie’s margin, inserted for nothing but cheap chuckles and propaganda apparently.  If you ever wanted to see an adorably slovenly, in-need-of-a-shave Alec Baldwin kiss a man, though, Rock of Ages is definitely your fix, with adorable Russell Brand being the lucky guy in this case.  (Oddly enough, Rock of Ages isn’t Baldwin’s first man-man mouth action, since he did the same, albeit with different motivation, in 1992’s Prelude to a Kiss.)

More dark and satanic content in this film, along the lines of Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, would have been nice, but since Rock of Ages is primarily a film about love and rock’s redemptive power, it might have been a distraction. I also would like to have seen even more and bigger big hair on the women, but that is a somewhat minor complaint.  I’ve watched Rock of Ages eight times so far and I always discover something new.  An enthusiastic 5 stars.  See it and remember: don’t stop believing!

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Rock of Ages is:

6. Drug-ambivalent

5. Proudly gay

4. Anti-state

3. Anti-Christian

2. Pro-liberty

1. Pro-rock (though the argument could be made that, by transforming heavy metal into a song-and-dance show, the film has actually neutered rock by (almost) rendering it safe for the family).

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