In times of austerity people look to cinema and the stage to transport them away from their troubles to a magical, make-believe, feel-good world. Busby Berkeley did it with musical extravaganzas during the Great Depression, and here comes Rock of Ages; a breathlessly cheesy slice of foot-tapping rock that brings as many cringes as it does cheers.
This musical based on hit numbers by the likes of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Journey is set in 1987 (oh, the big hair! The spandex!) and follows the fortunes of hick from the sticks Sherrie (Julianne Hough) who chases her dream to the bright lights of Los Angeles only to find herself working as a waitress in down-at-heel rock venue, The Bourbon Room.
Here she meets aspiring singer barman Drew (Diego Boneta) and instantly loses her heart. But before their fledgling romance can sprout wings, The Bourbon’s owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin), is offered a one-off gig by rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise with outrageous cod-piece and tatts) which causes all sorts of complications. For, despite the protestations from Jaxx’s slimey manager (Paul Giamatti at his oily best), Stacee is notoriously undependable and is the focus of an anti sex and drugs and rock and roll crusade led by Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) wife of the newly elected mayor. Then there’s the Rolling Stone journalist (an excellent Malin Akerman) who is intent on giving Stacee a hard time for ‘selling out’, so if Stacee ever gets off the booze and if the gig ever gets off the ground it will be some kind of miracle.
So far, so very cheesy – and that’s in an artificial Cheese Whiz way, rather than a nice substantial hunk of cheddar – but then the storyline takes a bit of a detour and loses its feelgood way for a while. Of course, it comes back on track for the all-singing, all-dancing finale, but this dip in the middle is very noticeable. There are other small niggles, such as Russell Brand’s quasi-Fagin accent (Brand is ostensibly playing Dennis’s assistant but is actually just playing himself yet again), some frivolity with a boy band and the mayor (Brian Cranston) getting a good spanking. However, they are not the main focus here – the main thrust of the film (which it absolutely pulls off) is to get as many pumping, rocking songs as possible crammed into two hours. In that way, the film Rock of Ages most closely resembles is Mamma Mia! another hit stage show based on existing songs that miraculously translates to the film medium.
Yes, when Sherrie first bursts into song on the Greyhound bus into LA the audience has a good old chuckle, but by the time the driver and assorted passengers have joined in, the audience is hooked, having left disbelief at the door and fully embraced the make-believe. This is mainly because of the excellently chosen songs. Even if you weren’t alive in 1987 you will know these rock classics; everything from Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey and Starship’s We Built This City. You will want to stand up, clap your hands and stomp those feet. The actors have been chosen because they can really sing and Tom Cruise does Rock God like he really means it, while Zeta-Jones belts out her numbers like the great pro she showed herself to be in Chicago (yet another stage musical turned movie).
So, Rock of Ages isn’t exactly great art, or even a great film, but it delivers the perfect Friday night cinematic experience in these recession-hit days – a good old slice of escapist froth that will banish the real world to the wings, if only for a short while.