If its filmmakers studied the Motley Crue playbook just a little bit more than they did, Rock of Ages just might have worked....
Warner / 123 Minutes / 2012 / Rated PG-13 / Street Date: October 9, 2012
Rock of Ages desperately wants to be Mamma Mia! for the 80s butt-rock crowd, but it overthinks it. This seriously overwrought musical has undeniable charms when it isn't juggling nine useless plot points, but for every stage appearance by Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx (yup - he's that good), the film lumbers through dreadfully plain exposition sequences and supporting characters that neither offer an ironic take on the agonies and ecstasies of rock and roll nor celebrate its guitar-riffing joys.
Basically, Rock of Ages needs more hair metal in its arsenal. What grunge killed so singularly was the full-on-idle glee of bands like Poison or Warrant in concert. With outlandish costumes that made their members seem like gender-neutral Chinese dolls, hair metal delivered bigger-than-life thrills that were louder than a jet engine. And yes, in hindsight, they all looked ridiculous doing it. And while Rock of Ages definitely sports a solid costume and wardrobe contingent, it never really gets the feel right.
There's a hot new Sunset Strip club, some up-and-coming musicians trying to make it big on the scene, some square citizens trying to keep a muzzle on it all - if you squint, Rock of Ages is a sort of Hairspray-meets-Footloose musical tale about passion, art, and how to incorporate that into the world at large. We get some violent displays of greed - Jaxx's manager Paul (Paul Giamatti) is particularly effective and gross - and some solid sass (Mary J. Blige as a strip club manager named Justice does the most she can with her material), but these convoluted subplots never truly engage.
But Tom Cruise does. He's not on screen enough in Rock of Ages, but his bad-ass rock god presence here is seriously impressive (if perhaps not quite worth the price of admission). His calendar year 2012 will go down as more tabloid-y than cinematic, but even though Rock of Ages was stillborn at the box office, it's refreshing to watch Cruise sink his fangs into a bombastic, hedonistic character like Stacee Jaxx. If his fellow collaborators were up to really getting to the creamy center of late 80s hair metal mania, Rock of Ages might have had something.