Tom Cruise takes mediocre musical to near greatness
Rock of Ages lives and dies based on one performance that maintains its level of credibility. It’s not the bulk of the cast, which makes for an entertaining film. It’s not the music, which is cherry picked from a “I Love the ‘80s” hair metal anthem double disc CD. It’s not the fact that it’s adapted from a somewhat dark musical into a peppy, campy musical film. It’s that you need one person in the cast who isn’t just an actor, or someone with staying power; you need a genuine movie star still near the height of their powers.
Though on the surface it seems fairly perfunctory, the combination that Rock of Ages has going for it.
Take two young and attractive people (Diego Boneta), Julianne Hough) in a romance set to ‘80s tunes, and give them songs that play to their musical talents. Then you surround them with capable character actors (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston, Malin Ackerman) who are capable in most departments but aren’t required to carry the film with their vocal chops. Throw in an antagonist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has experience as a musical villain and a great stunt casting (Mary J Blige) you have the setup for what could be an interesting musical romantic musical set on the Sunset Strip in the ’80s during the peak of the hair metal era.
But one thing remains: you need someone to play the rock god thrown into the mix. Enter Tom Cruise with enough swagger to carry a trilogy and you have one of the more entertaining films of the year.
Sherrie (Hough) is a small town girl from a flyover state who dreams of becoming a famous singer in the late ‘80s. Thus she ventures down to Los Angeles, CA, on a bus hoping to make it. Landing a job at the infamous Bourbon Room (a stand in for the legendary Whiskey A Go Go), she meets Drew (Boneta), a bar back with similar dreams of rock stardom. Managed Lonny (Brand), an Englishman with no discernible talent outside of running a bar, they all work for Dennis (Alec Baldwin). He’s owned the bar for a long time and has been the guy who gave plenty of big name acts their first place to perform.
But trouble is brewing as the newly elected Mayor (Cranston) and his wife (Zeta-Jones) want to shut down the Bourbon room for their own nefarious purposes. There’s only one person who could potentially save the day: rock star Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), making the final appearance on stage with his seminal band Arsenal. He made his start at the Bourbon Room and his manager (Paul Giamatti) has been talked into putting on one last show at the famed bar.
It’s a fairly pedestrian film in terms of its story; it’s essentially a romantic comedy between Drew and Sherrie that follows the formula enough to make it easy to follow. Throw in some big powerful musical performances from everyone involved and it’s a fairly solid, though unremarkable, musical on the surface. Embracing and alternatively mocking the sort of goofy camp nature of ‘80s pop culture and music, the film would normally be an interesting but passable film with the exception of one thing,
Tom Cruise as a rock star carries this film much higher than it has any right to go.
When it comes to being a movie star, and being a popular actor, Cruise is one of the few actors that radiate the former as opposed to the latter. It’s what separates him from the cast and Jaxx the character from the rest of the cast. And Jaxx as a character is fairly easy to play; musicians don’t have to have a level of gravitas in their normal, everyday lives. Cruise commands your attention on screen as a rock god whose excess is excused in comical fashion.
A good comparison would be with his cast mate Brand, who played a similar sort of rock star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. It’s in the musical performance that sets them apart in this way. Brand was suitably good as Aldous Snow the character but lacked that final factor that made you think he was the last rock star he was portrayed to be once he got on stage. It’s easy to act the rock star, it’s remarkably tough to get on stage and credibly play one.
You have that power to be on stage and be the man or you don’t; Cruise has it and it’s glorious to watch.
Allowed to be himself on the screen he radiates “star” for the first time in a while; playing an action hero for many actors takes away their natural presence and charisma because most action heroes are fairly one note characters. When he walks on screen there’s something there that Cruise rarely lets out: gravitas. He commands the screen merely by stepping onto it and keeps it with a character that embodies the sort of excess ‘80s hair metal bands had in abundance.
He’s the sort of star that Bret Michaels, Vince Neil, Jon Bon Jovi and others would’ve called over the top during their days on top. This is a rock star at the very height of his powers out to pull off one last show with his old band before he goes on his own path as a solo artist. Cruise owns the screen when he’s not on stage, as well, but when he’s allowed to get on stage Cruise shines.
This Cruise comes alive during Jaxx’s big musical numbers in a way that’s magnificent to watch; there are a handful of moments he’s in front of an arena sized crowd and there’s no disconnect. It may be Cruise, singing and playing guitar, but there’s a presence to him that screams “rock star.” It’s rare that an actor can get into the moment on stage as a musician and BE a rock star; playing a musician is fairly easy. Artists of all types have an inherent language all their own that translates from one medium to another. An actor and a musician are artists in similar fashion; an actor playing a musician and discussing the nature of creativity isn’t as difficult as an actor playing an office worker because there are more similarities in the creative process as opposed to a creative process and administrative tasks.
Playing a musician is one thing; getting on a stage and having enough charisma and presence to be able to do more than allow a director and editor to cleverly hide you deficiencies in that department is another. And Cruise, who took voice and guitar lessons to prepare for the role, is as comfortable onstage as his character ought to be. There aren’t any clever cutaways to someone else’s hands, et al, to cover up his poor playing of the guitar. Cruise looks like a natural onstage in every facet.
During his first big number, “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi, the film could sink if he’s as bad singing as Pierce Brosnan was in Mamma Mia! or Johnny Depp’s talk-sing style in Sweeney Todd. It’s a pivotal moment in the film that it hinges upon; without something extraordinary the film would remain a passable attempt at making a rock-opera out of an era known as much for its excess as anything else. Years from now it’d be a part of YouTube clips on some of the less than stellar moments Alec Baldwin would’ve had, as his rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon would be sandwiched in with a handful of other clips over the years. Without Tom Cruise in a performance that perhaps only he could pull off the film sinks; if Tom Cruise wanted to remind people what a movie star really is then Rock of Ages was the perfect vehicle.
Director: Adam Shankman Writers: Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb, Justin Theroux based off the play “Rock of Ages” by Chris D’Arienzo Notable Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Åkerman, Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise