Rock of Ages, a new star-clogged pop-musical diversion partly filmed in South Florida, is a cinematic event. It's not every day, after all, that you get to see two great American traditions — guitar/bass/drums rock music and Tin Pan Alley musical theater — so thoroughly, mutually degraded.
This mess originated as a stage production, first performed in Los Angeles in 2006, from which it spread to Broadway, the West End, and the known universe beyond. Like Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys, it belongs to the species that has been dubbed the "jukebox musical," in which a group of licensed pop songs is strung together to create a ready-made musical score. This practice of steering a story between preexistent tunes effectively guarantees that the songs cannot grow from the plot organically while challenging the author of the book to invent the pretext of a narrative setting in which to imbed the numbers.
It's West Hollywood, 1987, and a bus pulls up to a corner to disgorge... not Axl Rose with the hayseed's straw sticking out of his mouth but Dancing With the Stars mainstay Julianne Hough, here playing Sherrie, a girl from Tulsa dreaming of the big time as a frontwoman. Instead, she gets her suitcase stolen and ends up waiting tables at the Bourbon Room, a Whisky a Go Go stand-in that's located on a rebuilt vintage Sunset Strip that's actually the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. She gets the job thanks to the intervention of young Drew (Diego Boneta), who we know is destined for Sherrie, as he shares her scruffily clean-cut looks and her wide-eyed "Juke Box Hero" aspirations and is, like her, staggeringly dull.
Even this safe haven is not, however, safe. "Taxes, they're so un-rock 'n' roll," Bourbon owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) sighs, faced with a money-crunch deadline as the mayor's Tipper-esque antirock crusader wife, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), scrutinizes the Bourbon's fudged books, looking for any excuse to shut the place down as part of her "Clean Up the Strip" initiative. Dennis' Hail Mary solution is corralling back Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), former Bourbon mainstay turned decadent, dissipated, and totally unreliable arena rocker, for a one-off benefit show.
Cruise has the advantage of playing one of those built-up parts. Everyone in the first act talks up Jaxx, so he can't help but be impressive by the time he shows up — a fine fit for a star who by now can really be convincing only as a star. The dissolute rock-god gags (pet monkey, scrums of groupies) are old hat, but Cruise is a dynamic, kabuki-esque, full-body performer, and he gives Jaxx something between the boozy silverback swagger of Jim Morrison and Glenn Danzig's armored-car physical presence.
Jaxx finds his match in Malin Akerman's Rolling Stone reporter, who calls out Jaxx's coasting career under Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), his manager — that most conveniently demonized of rock-historical figures, scapegoated so that personal accountability can never be demanded of our heroes.
Choreographer-cum-director Adam Shankman, who previously handled 2007's Hairspray, does his best to keep things assaultively lively, hot-potatoing songs around the cast and crosscutting in Frankensteined mashups. The songs in Rock of Ages split pretty evenly between power balladry ("More Than Words," "Every Rose Has Its Thorn") and anthemic fist-pumpers ("Pour Some Sugar on Me," "Here I Go Again"). As those songs play, regular concertgoers of Broward County will recognize the surroundings — many of the concert scenes were filmed at Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale and the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood.
If rock, as is herein insisted, will never die, the "rock" paradigm perpetuated by Rock of Ages deserves a deep, dank unmarked grave.