Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rock of Ages

Sonic hellfire assaults your ears, converting and empowering you to take on the world.  The writhing passion inside you yearns to pick up a sword and engage in a mystic attack on the fortress of modern conformity.  Angels and demons live in ecstatic combat, warring for your soul.   To which side will you yield?

The metal musical "Rock of Ages" debuting this weekend hopes you'll yield to their side.  The film stars the beautiful freak Tom Cruise as Steve Jackson, a Michigan rock god spreading his profane gospel to '80s metalheads.  Yet many of his former acolytes rebelled, tired of his putting sex & booze above rock & roll.  Now he must submit to penitence at nightclubs instead of stadiums, laying bare his heart and soul to an intrepid preppy Rolling Stone reporter, Constance Sack played by Malin Ackerman, in order to expiate both his own sins and those of his sleazy manager, Paul Gill played by Paul Giamatti.

Young love beats within the hearts of Sherrie Christian and Drew Boley, played by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta.  These are the faithful, the true believers, the devoted disciples of metal, wanting to parlay their menial nightclub jobs into a shot at fame.  Not-so-young love beats within the hearts of Dennis and Lonny, the nightclub owner (Alec Baldwin) and his bumbling sidekick (Russell Brand), trying to further their cause, listen to the gospel, pay the bills and keep their temple open for some time to come.  And the threat to the temple comes from Los Angeles Mayor Mike Whitmore (Brian Cranston) and his perfect wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), pious political posers who want to tear down the center of sin on the Sunset Strip and replace it with something more prophetic (profitable) to their faithful (financial) followers (masters).

The film (directed by Adam Shankman with a screenplay by Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo and Allan Loeb based on the broadway musical book by D'Arienzo) is powered by some of the heavy metal and hard rock songs and power ballads of the '80s.  Succeeding in its ambitions, "Rock of Ages" serves its sacrament of sonic salvation sensationally.  However the power of this pageant lies in the music, not the characters. 

The deity in this passion play -- Cruise's Jackson aka Stacee Jaxx -- is not the central character.  Jaxx exists as the focal point onto whom the other characters project their hopes, fears, and lusts.  The arrogant but talented Cruise plays the arrogant but talented Jaxx to the hilt, but the devoted disciples played by Boneta & Hough are the heart of the film, singing well but lacking the charisma of the more experienced actors.  Brand & Baldwin play their parts well, but while Brand does his usual affable airhead schtick, the usually corporate Baldwin does not lose himself in the part.  Cranston and Ackerman's performances are adequate but not much more.  Giamatti seems almost typecast in his role, delivering nothing new but delivering it well.  But Zeta-Jones manages to sell her part with zeal, revealing the lust beneath the piety.  But for all the lust the film is perhaps too nice in some regards, showing sex without nudity, decadence without drugs, and temptation only in good taste.  The storyline is adequate, showing us the temptations within and without the metal lifestyle, and manages to set up the songs nicely.  And in the end rock ravages rap, metal beats boy bands, and the headbangers live happily ever after.  Just like in the real world.

But you don't go to a rock concert expecting Shakespeare in the Park.  The songs soar and fill the theater with their metal majesty.   If you had a radio in the '80s, you probably already know them.  If you thought they were awesome then, you will be enraptured by their presence here.  If you thought they were crude expressions of juvenile emotions, promising and delivering nothing more than pernicious ear-splitting howls of anguish suitable for blue-collar adolescents venting their frustrations at the world that doesn't include them:  Well, duh, that's the point.  And if you appreciate that point, you will appreciate this film.

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