'Rock of Ages' Review: Cruise Commandeers Ode to '80s Hair Bands

'Rock of Ages' Review: Cruise Commandeers Ode to '80s Hair Bands

Movie stars aren’t supposed to disappear into a role as easily as Tom Cruise does in “Rock of Ages.”

Yes, Cruise isn’t technically the star of the new film, based on the jukebox musical which delighted Broadway fans despite the decidedly unhip source material. But every time his Stacee Jaxx character hits the screen everything else fades away, as do images of couch jumping.

And given the crush of singing, dancing and medleys trotted out for our amusement, that’s saying plenty.

“Rock of Ages” is, in technical terms, a mess. The story staggers from one glam rock ditty to the next, with subplots ricocheting around the stage like David Lee Roth in his naughty prime. We’re told a family values crusader wants to smite rock on the Sunset Strip for good, but the music featured here is about as naughty as a Musketeer trying to warble a Britney Spears song.

And, for the first time in memory, Alec Baldwin is utterly miscast in a movie. But the songs chosen for the film are aging better than anyone could have imagined, and Cruise keeps popping up to remind us why movie stars still matter.

It’s 1987, and a small town girl named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) arrives in L.A. with visions of stardom in her pretty head. She settles for a waitressing gig at the Bourbon Room run by a past his prime rock relic (Alec Baldwin) and his daffy sidekick (Russell Brand).

Drew ( Diego Boneta), a bar back at the club, quickly falls for Sherrie, but he’s dreaming of becoming a rock god just like Jaxx. And he’ll get a chance to study at the feet of the master soon enough, because Jaxx is slated to play his last gig with his band, Arsenal, at the club before embarking on a solo career.

Will Sherrie and Drew make beautiful music together? Or will a take no prisoners Catherine Zeta-Jones, cast as a Bible thumper looking to close the Bourbon Room down, effectively bring the ’80s to a halt three years before its time?

“Rock of Ages” takes both big and small liberties with the stage production. Yes, the love ballad between the rock club owners remains, but it’s such an isolated number it adds nothing to the story save a few easy laughs. And Jaxx’s role has been modified, and sweetened, to better fit Cruise’s apple pie persona.

His Stacee Jaxx has Cruise channeling every rock star cliche of the past 30 years and creating something entirely new as a result – even if he bears a slight resemblance to Axl Rose. Jaxx is barely audible one moment, than sexually voracious the next. He’s so gosh darn famous he can barely relate to his fellow humans, but a feisty Rolling Stone scribe (Malin Akerman) gets closer than most to the man behind the myth.

The Sherrie/Drew romance is treated like an afterthought at times, and given the star wattage around the young performers (we haven’t even mentioned the great Paul Giamatti yet, or Bryan Cranston) maybe that’s for the best.

The songs chosen for the movie provide some overlap with the stage show, but the film turns several potentially strong numbers into overloaded affairs by repeatedly fusing two songs together to extend the soundtrack’s cultural reach. When the production simplifies matters, like having Sherrie’s fellow bus riders break into “Sister Christian” in the opening moments, the film sparkles.

And even people who couldn’t wait for the hair metal era to end will be surprised to hear how “Rock of Ages” transforms these tracks for the better. An audio tweak here, a beefed up backing vocal there, and suddenly “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” sounds fresh. But no amount of audio surgery can salvage “We Built This City.”

“Rock of Ages” puts too much faith in our affection for a soulless chapter in rock, but Cruise treats these songs like they’re part of the great American songbook. And for a while we hold our lighters high in agreement.

Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies