While I was watching Rock of Ages, director Adam Shankman’s film adaptation of the 80s-set off-Broadway production, something strange happened to my face.
As the story of Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a small town gal living in a lone-lee world began to unfold and a star-studded cast sang anthems from the decade that taste forgot while one glob of schmaltzy plot setup melted into another, my brow squished in like massaged putty. My tongue dried of moisture, my jaw dropped as if it were powerless to resist the pull of gravity and my bottom lip extended a good two inches, leaving not so much a human being but a gobsmacked Dali-esque disfigurement, a single frame from a John Carpenter special effect gone bad.
A few scenes later something amazing happened. That look of horror disintegrated as my muscles reformed into an expression of delight and disbelief. The performance that resonated like a frog leaping out of a dynamite pond, the man whose mojo turned my frown upside down, was Tom Cruise. As a rock pig sex god of the Axl Rose ilk, shirtless, tattooed and muscular, all snarl and whiskey and hubris, with rings of black makeup imprinted like coffee stains around his eyes, Cruise doesn’t so much act the part as smoke it, stub it and stick the butt in his eye — a shockingly good performance in a shockingly bad movie.
Cruise’s character Stacee Jaxx grudgingly participates in a Rolling Stone interview with a bookish looking journalist (read: hot chick with glasses) while being delivered scotch by a helper baby baboon. The following scene has the couple singing I Wanna Know What Love Is on top and around a pool table. It’s one of the most spectacularly awful soft sex scenes in history, an aneurism in the brain of movie musicals not even Tommy Wiseau could dream up, replete with dry humping, mutual inspection of underwear and performances that rocket to a horny intergalactic outpost and back in a heartbeat. So wrong and yet, so right. When the story returns to the small town gal in the big lonely world, singing mopey songs and walking rainy streets after quitting her job, suddenly the party is over and my face snapped back to the Dali disfigurement and the countenance of a twisted slinky.
Rock of Ages delivered the most extraordinarily visceral movie experiences I’ve had in years, probably since Bruce LaBruce’s La Zombie — awful, tragic and repugnant for quite different reasons. My face jolted from glimpses of delight to frozen sheets of sheer terror. A movie so catastrophically uncool I left feeling like showering in dirty whiskey.
The problem isn’t so much the hokey performances, featherweight musical numbers or plotlines ensconced in convention, though they don’t help. The core issue in Rock of Ages is a blaring disconnect between the story it tells and the movement it aspires to capture.
Rebellion anthems like We Built This City weren’t songs about triumphing against the odds, following your dreams, or finding cozy moral oasis’ in a big bad world of nasty pasties. If they were, or intended to be, those messages never made it through the white noise and scuzzy speaker vibrations. They were about rocking out, jaw breaking, head banging, adding another layer of barf to the soiled carpet, sticking it to the man, soaking in the soiled cultural milieu of being alive and fist pumping at that moment in history, if they were about anything at all.
Shankman’s direction (his previous film was the vastly more enjoyable Hairspray) is weirdly atavistic. Rock of Ages has the veneer of new pretending to be old pretending to be older, as if Shankman and the writers sought to rewrite the history they were already rewriting. The setting may be 80s, the film’s aesthetic may be 2012, but the cheesy naivety underscoring the age-old themes Rock of Ages flips and turns in a beefy patty of quasi-inspiration is the stuff of Richie Cunningham and Happy Days (also several layers of retro: an idealised 70s take on life in the mid-50s to mid-60s) mixed with a kind of soulless didacticism.
Performances from Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti et al try their darndest to get into the groove of things, but they pitch at different levels (Zeta-Jones appears more interested in performing ad-hoc pilates classes than acting) and everybody seem to be reading from alternative scripts. More than that, with the exception of Cruise their hearts just aren’t in it, and the pervading sense of fraudulence is as obvious here as it would have been in an ABBA helmed production of the best of Black Sabbath. Rock of Ages aint rock at all: the vodka was flat lemonade, the scotch caffeine-free tea and nobody drank the bong water.
When all appears to be lost, Tom Cruise, beaming dark eyes from another universe and crowd surfing his own sweaty ego, returns to crank the dial back to 11. When Jaxx urinated on his manager’s leg while simultaneously drinking 150-year-old champagne from the bottle everything, for a few fleeting moments, became right again, then wrong again, then right and wrong, before the cinematic wind turned once more and the deformed face of abject terror — set to the tune of classic songs homogenised into American Idol gloop — returned.
Rock of Ages’ Australian theatrical release date: June 14, 2012.