The musical comedy, that great American film form, seems these days just about as moribund as another great American form, the Western. Despite a cast full of big names, innumerable extras, some apparently expensive production values, and an array of songs from the 1980's (really), the new movie "Rock of Ages" will, alas, likely do nothing to revive the genre.
Although set against the rather unusual temporal background of 1987, the picture follows a most familiar pattern, the story of the small-town girl who journeys to the big city — in this case, Los Angeles — with dreams of becoming a star — in this case, a singer. It opens with the sweet, innocent Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) on a bus from Oklahoma to California, singing about her aspirations, with the whole bus, including the driver, joining in the song. The director uses that device several times throughout the story, turning normal conversations, even political speeches, into song, often with a soloist belting out a most forgettable set of lyrics backed up by a chorus of onlookers.
When Sherrie arrives in the big city she experiences the usual culture shock: a series of encounters with some dubious citizens, culminating in a mugging. A young lad who works in the allegedly famous Bourbon Room on Sunset Strip, Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), rescues her and persuades his boss, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), to give her a job there as well. Naturally, after several duets, the nice young people become a couple, enjoying the city, the Bourbon Room, and each other, and accompanying their romance with a series of ballads that all sound very much alike.
The real fun of the movie involves Dennis Dupree's efforts to save his club — sound familiar? — with a free appearance from Arsenal, the most famous heavy-metal band in the world, and particularly its star, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). The plan works after a fashion and for a short while, but the plot device itself enables Cruise to hijack the picture, turning the sappy love story into an excursion into rock-star arrogance and dissipation that, for all its comic exaggeration, reflects historical reality.
Stacee Jaxx is the man who haunts a parent's nightmares, a debauched, depraved degenerate who sleeps with a quartet of groupies, drinks Scotch by the bottle, and sends young women, including Sherrie, into swoons at his approach. He prances around the stage half naked, partially clothed in leather, displaying a veritable Sistine Chapel of tattoos, screaming out his songs, and galvanizing his fans into hysteria. He sneers at everyone around him, speaks only in mumbles and whispers, and associates mostly with a horrible pet monkey named Hey Man.
Stacee's entrance on the scene ignites a bundle of other plots, one involving the manipulations and betrayals of his oily manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), another the romance between Dennis Dupree and his loyal assistant Lonny (Russell Brand), another the determination of the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to clean up Los Angeles, shut down the Bourbon Room, and kill rock and roll. All of that business (and more) clogs up the smooth path of true love between the blond Sherrie and the bland Drew.
Appropriately, the movie features several big production numbers employing a great many performers. One shows Sherrie working in a strip club, singing a song that moves through several different scenes, with all the other characters singing the same song, so that the music acts as a kind of transitional method to link all the plots and people. Aside from the very loud climactic performance by Arsenal and Stacee Jaxx, a couple of others stand out — Catherine Zeta-Jones leading a chorus of upper-class ladies in a frenetic song and dance in a church, where they vow to destroy the music of the Satanic Jaxx, whose picture they sacreligiously place on the altar (all the while the mayor himself is enjoying mildly perverted sex in the sacristy with his lovely aide).
The two alleged principals of "Rock of Ages" and their silly love story simply fade into the background whenever the secondary characters appear and do their shtick. When Cruise, Baldwin, and Brand take over the picture it becomes quite funny, otherwise it remains, frankly, quite horrible.