If you go to the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA, you might see the marquee advertising a band called Steel Panther. For those not in the know, Steel Panther is a hair metal homage/parody band. The group covers famous hair metal tracks as well as offering their own original tunes with titles like "Asian Hooker." It's the closest experience you can get to being at a show during the heyday of hair metal, when the world's biggest bands had the world's biggest hairdos, and they were all playing on the Sunset Strip. I've seen Steel Panther many times, and plan to go many times more. It is among the most entertaining shows you can witness in Los Angeles. Why do I mention it? Because 'Rock of Ages' attempts to summon this same kind of over the top entertainment, but unlike Steel Panther, the film falls flat on its face.
Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is traveling from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to be a singer. Her first stop is the Bourbon Room, a rock club that famously started the career of rock mega-band Arsenal. Drew (Diego Bonita), a bar back at the club but secretly longing to be a singer himself, takes up with Sherrie and convinces the club's owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin) to hire her on. Dennis is facing his own troubles, as the Bourbon Room is almost broke, and only a returning gig by Arsenal, headed by the legendary Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) can save the club being closed down by the town's mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his prudish wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Jaxx, however, is suffering from a creative drought, brought on by an endless parade of women and booze supplied by his sleazy manager Paul (Paul Giamatti). Will Stacee get his act together to save the club? Will Sherrie and Drew achieve their dream of becoming famous singers? Will 'Rock of Ages' be able to recreate the infectious fun of the immensely popular stage production?
I don't want to spoil the movie, so I can't answer the first two questions, but I can easily answer the third: No way. 'Rock of Ages' was a surprise hit on Broadway, a silly flight of fantasy that wasn't afraid to make fun of itself while paying homage to 80's hair metal. It seemed destined to be just another flaccid jukebox musical (a musical created by taking existing songs and jamming them into a plot designed around the pre-existing material), but it managed to miss that pitfall and charm both audiences and critics. However, in translating the musical to film, director Adam Shankman ('Hairspray', 'A Walk To Remember') forgot to bring the fun along with him.
'Rock of Ages' is slick and highly polished, but also narratively bereft. Take, for instance, Russell Brand's character of Lonny. In the stage production, he takes on the role of narrator, but that element has been stripped from the film, leaving him with nothing to do and making him completely superfluous. Midway through the film Dennis and Lonny reveal through an REO Speedwagon song that they're in love with each other, and Baldwin and Russell even share an on screen kiss, then it's literally never mentioned again. Similarly, Sherrie and Drew have a falling out because Drew mistakenly thinks Sherrie slept with Stacee Jaxx, but the two don't have a conversation about it for a whole hour of the film's runtime, and many months of the picture's internal timeline.
A surplus of characters, all vying for screen time, is definitely a big problem. In addition to Lonny, Bryan Cranston appears as Mayor Whitman, whose only purpose in the film is to introduce his wife, who vows to have the Bourbon Room shut down. However, Cranston sticks around, sleeping with his secretary. The assumption is that he'll get caught and that will help his wife realize that her obsession with purity is misplaced, but no, that never happens. The mayor actually spends the film's climax in his office with his scantily clad secretary on his lap. Why is he there? Nobody knows. Zeta-Jones' character could have easily been introduced as the head of a MADD-style lobby, dispensing with Cranston's character completely.
And those are just the narrative problems. The film strives to be a love letter to 80's hair metal, but the problem is that traditional musicals are about as un-rock and roll as you can get. That isn't to say there aren't rock musicals ('The Rocky Horror Picture Show' being the most famous, and 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' being the best), but those shows are rock first, musical second. In 'Rock of Ages,' it's the other way around, and the slick productions neuter the balls that made these tracks rock songs in the first place. Julianne Hough and Diego Bonita have very nice voices, but rock singers they are not. I do have to give credit to Shankman for making all the actors sing their own parts, which does at least let you believe that these specific characters are part of this fictional world.
There is one major exception to the parade of failures this movie presents: Tom Cruise. Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, and from the moment he first appears on screen (rising from beneath a pile of near naked women), you absolutely believe that he's the world-weary rocker that everyone claims he is. When Malin Ackerman (woefully miscast as a Rolling Stone reporter) asks him what it's like to be the Stacee Jaxx, Cruise's performance keeps the question from feeling utterly laughable. And unlike his cast members, Cruise does have the screen presence and charisma to pull off the rock songs, including Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," The Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane," and an especially explosive performance of Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me." If it weren't for Cruise, there would be no reason to see 'Rock of Ages' at all.
Cruise's scenes, along with a few other isolated moments, hint at what 'Rock of Ages' could have been with more focus and stronger direction. Instead, Shankman is content to let the film meander, wasting time on pointless characters singing songs of varying quality. The film's absolute low point comes when a gathered mob sings Starship's "We Built This City," one of the most derided and offensively awful pop songs of all time. How the stage musical's wit got left behind but that song stuck around is beyond me. It's one of the many bad decisions that leave 'Rock of Ages' a joyless husk.
Shot with ARRI 2.8K cameras, the 2.40:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer on 'Rock of Ages' looks stellar. The reconstructed Sunset Strip is eye-poppingly gorgeous, with bright, well saturated colors and strong contrast. At times, a single color will seem a bit oversaturated, but a lot of that comes from the scenes in the Bourbon Room, which is a rock club full of stage lights. Blacks are deep, with plenty of shadow detail.
In fact, detail in general is quite strong, showing off every aspect of the intricate production design and slavishly reproduced costumes. I couldn't detect any compression artifacts or noise of any kind. With the exception of a few oversaturated colors here and there, this is an excellent transfer.
'Rock of Ages' DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix has an expansive soundstage, with plenty of activity across the various channels. Directionality is sometimes a bit less effective than I would like, but the overall atmosphere does give you the feeling that you're inside a packed club with a zealous audience. However, the balance seems off, with dialogue scenes much lower than the musical numbers. You'll be reaching for your volume control many times throughout the movie.
That being said, the soundtrack is free from distortion, and other than the bass, the dynamic range is excellent. When the music is playing, the sound is very warm, with the vocals in particular coming in strongly. The mids sound excellent, and when Julianne Hough hits those high notes, you feel it.
'Rock of Ages' comes packaged with both the Blu-ray and the DVD, which features an Ultraviolet version of the film. The Blu-ray has both the extended and theatrical cuts of the film, while the DVD only has the theatrical. Interestingly, the DVD appears to have a feature that's missing from the Blu-ray: A 12-minute featurette called "Def Leppard: Live At The Premiere," which, just as it sounds, is footage of Def Leppard performing at the film's premiere. To offset this, WB has put on several features that are exclusive to the Blu-ray.
Other than Tom Cruise's electric performance, 'Rock of Ages' is a lifeless, listless, rudderless production. The all-star cast and slick production can't overcome the laughably bad script and Shankman's meandering direction. This Blu-ray looks good, and the sound is generally satisfying, even if it lacks a low end punch and the dialogue comes in far more quietly than the musical numbers. This Blu-ray does have some extra high def features not included on the DVD, two of which are actually more entertaining than the film itself. However, while those features might be enjoyable, they alone don't make this disc worth a purchase. Instead of wasting your time on this, go see the stage production, or even better, come on out to Hollywood and go see Steel Panther. You might even find me there, headbanging the night away. As for this movie, you can skip it, or give it a rent for Cruise.