Rock of Ages (review)

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Rock of Ages Tom Cruise green light

Bang Yer Head

If there’s one thing that rock ’n’ roll has understood from the beginning — to the consternation of pearl-clutching panty-sniffers everywhere — it’s that selling sex to horny girls and women is a license to print money. From Elvis to the Beatles to Mick Jagger to Duran Duran to George Michael to — *shudder* — Justin Bieber, the gyrating and the howling and the sweaty bods have never been aimed at you, dudes. Sorry.

It’s honestly astonishing that Hollywood hasn’t figured this out and appropriated some of rock’s hormonal mojo, what with its religious devotion to making a buck, or a billion — cuz, you know, Hollywood has been ignoring the desire of half the human race to get her rocks off, and what sort of business sense does that make? Which is what makes it so amazing to see how female-gazey Rock of Ages is. More than any other movie about rock has ever been, maybe. And this is just a madly silly, deeply goofy movie that’s meant to pander to GenX 80s nostalgia. It’s not trying to be radical or revolutionary or anything other than money-grubbing. I’m not even sure director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) realizes how extraordinary his film is on this level. (Certainly, whenever he’s tried to make movies “for women” before — as with his early 2000s craptacular duo of A Walk to Remember and The Wedding Planner — he has demonstrated a decided lack of understanding as to what horny girls and women want to see and feel in a movie.)

Because, this: I am not an especial fangirl of Tom Cruise. I’ve never found him particularly intriguing or attractive, and I have found a few reasons to be turned off by him. But… day-um. The man is 50 years old and he’s half-naked — or more; we’ve never seen, ahem, so much of Cruise ever before, I think — throughout Rock of Ages as 80s rock god Stacee Jaxx, singer for the band Arsenal. And I’m having hot flashes just remembering back to how it made me feel, watching him onscreen as he gyrates and howls and sweats. Cruise owns this movie in a way that would have been hard for me to fathom before I saw it. It’s not just about his gyrating and howling and sweaty half-naked bod, but he sings! Tom Cruise sings! And he’s good! Or at least good enough to make you realize that this guy could have gone in a slightly different direction and been Bon Jovi instead of Tom Cruise. Which makes you realize that it’s all — Hollywood and rock and roll and the whole big pop-culture shebang — the same thing, and so why does rock get it so right in not ignoring women audiences while movies mostly get it so wrong?

*daydreaming about Tom Cruise’s naked torso*

No, I’m wrong: it’s all about how Tom Cruise is half nude throughout this movie.

*fans self*

The story is almost beside the point, because Tom Cruise’s nude torso that I could be running my hands all over and because the young kittenish leads in this story cobbled together around awesome 80s hair-band stadium anthems are the weakest part of it. Sweet blond Sherrie Christian — I swear to God that’s the name they gave her — rides the bus from Oklahoma (yes, from actual Oklahoma) to Los Angeles in in 1987 where she meets cute with Drew, who works in a rock club on the Sunset Strip and they both wanna be rock stars or something and so they fall in love and stuff and the youthful earnestness will make you want to smack them. Oh, okay, that’s an exaggeration: Julianne Hough (Footloose) and Diego Boneta are adorable, mostly in how they’re far too young to actually remember hair bands or stadium athems. But their puppyish romance is by far the least interesting and the least fun thing here.

True fun here: Alec Baldwin (It’s Complicated, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa) as the club owner, and Russell Brand (Arthur, Hop) as his lieutenant, and their cynicism about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, and how it still can’t quite defeat their love of same. Paul Giamatti (The Ides of March, The Hangover Part II) as the talent agent, who’s hilariously sleazy and opportunistic. Bryan Cranston (John Carter, Contagion) as the hypocritical mayor of L.A., and Catherine Zeta-Jones (No Reservations, Ocean’s Twelve) as his pearl-clutching, panty-sniffing wife who wants to shut down the club. Malin Akerman (Couples Retreat, The Proposal) as the rock journalist who is the only one not afraid to call rock god Stacee Jaxx on his bullshit. And Cruise (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Knight and Day) as Jaxx, who almost feels like a revelation here, like we never knew he could be so relaxed onscreen, even while he portrays a character hugely stressed out and put upon and pressured to maintain a facade. And his story is the most compelling: we’re told he’s about to go solo, abandon Arsenal, and so, like… what does that mean? Is he gonna invent grunge? Rock of Ages is having a lot of fun with its nostalgia and its gentle prodding of recent history, and that’s the sort of direction it might take. Mostly, though: I didn’t think Cruise had such a sense of humor about himself… and that’s way more appealing than any amount of gyrating or howling or sexy rock sweating.

I wanted to run home and listen to a lot of Def Leppard and Journey and such after Rock of Ages, and I don’t even mean that in a negative way. I know plenty folk don’t like seeing the music of their adolescence appropriated by high school drama clubs, and I can see how some might feel that that is what has happened here — Rock of Ages isn’t just cheesy, it’s a nuclear explosion of cheese. But you know what? A lot of those 80s hair-band anthems were romantic and ridiculous already anyway, and not even in a “Lick My Love Pump” way. Rock of Ages just reminded me how much I love the music of the 80s.

Yeah, maybe it’s sorta sad that what was once seen as angry and rebellious and even satanic — the Zeta-Jones character isn’t at all an exaggeration — now can play so amiably, and so goodnaturedly. But that’s always how it is with rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t it? What thrilled one generation and shocked their parents is now a golden, mellow oldie. 80s hair heavy metal bands maybe have been all about danger — “Arsenal”; Poison; Metallica — but now they’re just cute. Yet moving along isn’t always a bad thing: there’s a minor subplot here about a gay couple that’s played for laughs that, in the 80s, would have been “funny” because it was all about underscoring how “weird” and “wrong” it is for two dudes — particularly two rock dudes! — to be in love with each other. Here, though, in 2012, it’s funny just cuz it’s so sweet.

This is no bad thing.

Also: the rise of boy bands gets a bashing. No one decent likes boy bands. So it’s all good.

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