With originality becoming an increasingly endangered species in the arts, more and more contemporary Broadway musicals are of the “jukebox” variety, taking a passel of well-known songs and embedding them in a tissue-thin book cobbled together from theatrical cliches. Often the tunes are by a single composer or group—“Nice Work If You Can Get It” (George Gershwin) recently joined the granddaddy of the genre “Mamma Mia” (coasting along since 2001, with an ABBA score). But some collect pop hits from a chosen period into a toe-tapping medley. That was the case with the stage version of this 1980s hair metal show, which originated in Los Angeles in 2006 and made it to off-Broadway in 2008 before settling down on the Great White Way itself in 2009, where it’s been happily ensconced ever since. On the screen, however, “Rock of Ages” proves just a splashy but slapdash nostalgia trip that, while offering a few good moments, is mostly underthought and overdone.
As usual in such fare, the story into which the songs are plugged is by far the weakest element. It’s the old boy-meets girl, they fall in love, separate and find one another again scenario. But it’s played out against the eighties Sunset Strip scene, particularly a joint called the Bourbon Room, a club on the ropes run by old-line rocker Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his exuberantly goofy chief tech Lonny (Russell Brand). The boy is Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a baby-faced bartender working there who wants to be a lead singer, and the girl is Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), an even sweeter-faced lass literally just off the bus from Tulsa whom he gets a job there after she’s robbed on the street. They’re quickly an item.
Dupree hopes to save his club, targeted for closure by Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the rock-hating wife of the philandering new mayor (Bryan Cranston), by hosting a one-night stand by legendary rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). It’s that preening demigod who causes trouble for our young lovers: Drew gets a break by doing a smash opening act for him, but breaks off with Sherrie when he suspects—wrongly, of course—that she’s had sex with him (the person Jaxx has bedded is the far more appropriately named Constance Sack, a Rolling Stone reporter played by Malin Akerman). After his triumph Drew’s also seduced by an offer of representation from Jaxx’s slimy manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), who also cheats Dupree and runs off with the night’s profits.
That leads to the obligatory downer episode preceding the happy ending. Sherrie winds up a pole dancer at a club run by sultry Justice (Mary J. Blige), while Gill, bowing to changing fan tastes, morphs Drew embarrassingly into a member of a boy band. Stacee, meanwhile, pines for Constance. Rest assured, though, that all ends happily with a big finale in which Jaxx returns to save the club, with the young couple reunited and the villains—Patricia and Gill—both getting their comeuppance.
This nothing scenario is, of course, only an excuse for the series of songs which are sung nicely enough even by people like Cruise, Baldwin and Giamatti but staged by director Adam Shankman so flashily, with wildly antic camerawork by Bojan Bazelli and hyperkinetic editing by Emma E. Hickox (accentuating the neon-bright production designed by Jon Hutman, with additional pizzazz provided by art director Paul Kelly, set designers Dennis Bradford and Rick Fojo, set decorator K.C. Fox and costumer Rita Ryack), that one can only assume the goal was to imitate an ecstasy trip.
As to the numbers, they tend to blend together quickly, with only a few real standouts—most notably the steamy “I Want to Know What Love Is” duet by Cruise and Akerman and a goofy long-time-in-the-making rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by Baldwin and Brand. And there are some real clunkers: Zeta-Jones’ early ensemble number “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” performed with her ladies’ auxiliary allies in a church while her hubby enjoys the attentions of a pretty aide in back of the sacristy, pretty much brings the show to a halt at the thirty-minute mark with its mixture of tastelessness and ineptitude. (One wishes, in fact, that the whole Whitmore subplot had been junked.) Otherwise the music is handled well enough, but because of its sameness comes to sound more like Muzak.
As to the cast, much of the pre-opening buzz centers of Cruise, and certainly he handles his big numbers—not only the duet with Akerman but his on-stage solos—with energy and a self-deprecating wink. But overall his posturing as Jaxx, complete with chief his aide, a monkey called Hey Man, is a lot less funny than Shankman thinks, and it gets old faster than Mick Jagger. Baldwin and Brand both have their moments, but Giamatti, like Zeta-Jones and Cranston, is pretty much wasted. As for Hough and Boneta, they’re basically bland and blander, more 1950s than 1980s.
“Rock of Ages” could appeal to the same audiences that made the movie of “Mamma Mia” a modest success; there’s plenty of nostalgia value here for the now middle-aged “me generation” who grew up on this music. But today’s teens will probably find the picture hopelessly dated and shun it the way they did the recent “Footloose” remake. And anyway it’s less reminiscent of “Mamma Mia” than it is of an early example of the jukebox movie musical, 1978’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It’s not quite that bad, but sometimes it comes perilously close.