★★ (out of 5 stars)
Somewhere around Glee's third season, I stopped watching altogether. I'd been a vocal proponent (and, only when pushed, an outspoken hater) of the alternately insipid and inspired TV musical until I felt it'd reached an irreversible breaking point where kitsch outweighed quality many times over. It hurt to watch anymore.
It's been a relieving six months, but the gods they love their games: Just when my left eye stops twitching, along comes Rock of Ages, the film adaptation of a Broadway musical that I've heard little about – and I'm a fan of musicals – directed by Adam Shankman, helmer of a previous musical adaptation (Hairspray) and also of a few episodes of Glee. But it wasn't his credit that triggered my flashbacks, but that of executive music producer Adam Anders, Glee's overlord of songs, or maybe that of Mia Michaels, Shankman's So You Think You Can Dance compatriot whose choreography, while transcendently emotional, is about as close to the spirit of rock & roll as, well, Adam Shankman. An ebullient personality and well-respected choreographer, it's nevertheless difficult to imagine him being anything but uncomfortable at a balls-to-the-wall Sunset Strip rock show in 1987.
So it is that this razor-thin story of an idealistic, fresh off the bus bottle blonde (Julianne Hough) who lands a job at glam haven the Bourbon Room, falls for the musically confused busboy and, naturally, ends up a stripper, feels from start to finish like merely a glossy approximation of the era and attitude it means to pay homage to. It's a jumbo-sized Glee tribute to the Strip. Oh, joy.
Aside from Russell Brand as an assistant to Alec Baldwin's mom-jeans-sporting club owner, every single writhing body populating the joint looks like a professional pop dancer, especially Hough herself, who never stops glittering. The mash-up-heavy songs never surprise – if you have one of those Time-Life "Monsters of Rock" collections, you can probably skip the soundtrack here – and are strung together by the same flimsy, highly illogical narrative threads that made me quit my Tuesday night guilty pleasure in the first place.
And then there's Tom Cruise, who overstays his welcome as a booze-and-sex-obsessed rock god with the unbearably stupid name Stacee Jaxx. His big plotline involves the seduction of a Rolling Stone "reporter" (Malin Akerman) who happens to be wearing a Catholic schoolgirl costume.
It's all just too goddamn much. I could possibly understand the banal dialogue – the audience isn't listening, anyway, as the full-blast chatter in my theater between songs proved well. I could even forgive the cheesy reverence for only the poppiest of "classic rock" – if it's an audience sing-along you want New York tourists to pay premium money for, you don't go obscure. But can someone explain to me why Shankman, an openly out LGBT activist, would goad that same crowd to laugh and shout in disgust (yep, that still happens today) at Baldwin and Brand's climactic makeout session – a relationship is hinted at throughout the film – by sending up the very idea of the relationship? The film's only characters with any depth to them, and they're made to exchange messy tongue laps (outside the mouth) when they finally acknowledge their attraction? Yes, Cruise and the reporter do the same, but they do much more besides and only break for the gag, I suspect, so the film could earn its PG-13 rating (and a handy shield against what I imagine will be at least a discussion).
Rock of Ages isn't a musical, it's a cynical ploy, the accompanying CGI visual to a karaoke video game. Just like its small-screen cousin.
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