<b>REVIEW | </b>By Christopher Kelly McClatchy Newspapers
His back arched and chest pumped out, his head craned sideways, his voice never rising above much of a whisper except when he’s belting out ’80s power pop anthems onstage, Tom Cruise gives the finest performance we’ve seen by any actor so far this year – among the very finest of his career – in “Rock of Ages,” Adam Shankman’s sometimes wobbly, but mostly ecstatic rock musical.
Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, notorious lead singer of the famed metal hair band Asylum, circa Los Angeles, 1987. The character is an inspired mash-up of any number of other real-life figures: the skimpy, leather jock strap and bejeweled, dragon-head codpiece looks like something Tommy Lee might have worn while playing drums for Motley Crue; the flowing fur coat and long hair that hangs straight into his face brings to mind Axl Rose in his Guns N’ Roses glory days. He talks likes Jim Morrison, all stream-of-conscious whispers, and he’s got them moves like Jagger (or, at least, like Joe Elliot of Def Leppard).
He is funny and often very sexy, and when he sings one of a half-dozen well-known hits, like Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” or Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” his voice displays surprising heft and conviction. That you never entirely forget you’re watching Tom Cruise is also part of the performance’s pleasure: Who would have thought a performer wound so famously tight would suddenly be so willing to let it rip?
Based on the popular Broadway show, “Rock of Ages” is a jukebox musical in the fashion of “Mamma Mia!,” in which a collection of well-known songs are re-contextualized and used to move a decidedly flimsy plot forward. Sherrie (Julianne Hough, from last year’s “Footloose” remake) is the small-town girl from Tulsa, who journeys to Los Angeles to make it big in the music industry. There she meets Drew (relative unknown Diego Boneta), a boyish barback at a famed club called The Bourbon Room with his own fantasies of rock ‘n’ roll glory. When they meet and discover their shared passion, well, what else is there to do but croon a duet of Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You”?
The supporting figures are all stock figures, and their artificiality is part of the joke – a goof on all those ’80s-era archetypes that we once took so seriously and that all look so quaint now. Catherine Zeta-Jones turns up (hilariously) as the Tipper Gore-like political wife leading a campaign to shut down the Sunset Strip; Paul Giamatti is the unctuous music manager willing to double-cross anyone for a buck; Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are the club operators hoping to get out of tax debt by staging a benefit concert headlining Stacee Jaxx.
“Rock of Ages” is directed by Adam Shankman, best known for the film version of “Hairspray.” Like Shankman’s earlier film, the tone here tends to lurch. There are sequences, such as when Stacee seduces a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) while singing Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” that devolve into graceless camp. The lead performances by Boneta and Hough are so wide-eyed and unironic that they often seem out of place.
Yet when Shankman strikes the right balance – at once knowing, postmodern and ferociously heartfelt – the movie soars. Zeta-Jones leads a gaggle of priggish Christian ladies in a song-and-dance set to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Stripper-pole choreography has never looked so affecting as when it’s performed to a plaintively arranged version of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.”
And whenever Cruise takes center stage, the movie rattles and hums and enters the stratosphere; you can’t take your eyes off him. He struts and sulks, bellows and primps – it’s a performance that seems to encapsulate all the outsized self-regard; the loony contradictions (why all these supposedly hyper-masculine guys wear eye makeup and leather chaps?); and the tacky pleasures of an entire decade. May he rock all the way to a much-deserved Oscar nomination.
‘Rock of Ages’
4 stars (out of 5)
STARS: Tom Cruise, Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta
RATED: PG-13 (sexual content)
RUNNING TIME: 2 hr 3 min