Don't let my one-star rating scare you away. Yes, "Rock of Ages" is one of the worst movies ever made. But it might also be the best John Waters camp that Waters had nothing to do with.
I wouldn't have missed it for the world. And if you're the sort of movie lover who has ever, for any reason, cherished the time you've spent in the company of flaming cinematic drek, I urge you to see "Rock of Ages," without fail. You'll marvel at its heart-stopping awfulness.
The world can't let such an achievement go unrewarded. This, after all, is an adaptation from the theatrical world that manages to find one of its fatiguingly over-abundant emotional climaxes in a full, star-spangled liplock between Alec Baldwin, in the filthiest long-haired wig they could find and, yes, Russell Brand. Who says they don't make classic movie moments like they used to? ("Alec's back and Russell's Got Him.")
Anyone attempting to lay any of this movie's majestic and awe-inspiring awfulness on the doorstep of star Tom Cruise would be guilty of felonious bad faith. To be honest, I've never begun to understand the unending and truly ugly malice Cruise's career has inspired. Even if the actual, well-litigated circumstances of his life justify the "South Park" boys making rude TV jokes with their kids squawking "why won't Tom Cruise come out of the closet?," who could possibly care in the 21st century if his sexuality may not be exactly as advertised?
In a world blessedly rushing to legalize same-sex partnerships and criminalize bullying, we are reaching a gloriously civilized state where it's jolly well none of our business to know what movie stars do every second of their down time. All that should matter to us is that this is a movie star capable of taking two years out of his life to enable Stanley Kubrick to make "Eyes Wide Shut" and to be 100 percent Oscar-worthy in "Jerry Maguire" (too bad he didn't win but, hey).
He is, in fact, close to terrific in "Rock of Ages" as Stacee Jaxx, a hair metal god who swaggers around shirtless in a fur jacket and leather pants that seem to have been sprayed on. When he's not on stage, he exhibits the perpetual stumble and odd speech rhythms of one whose bloodstream is so radioactive with every substance within reach that he's lucky he can talk at all, much less carry on something like a conversation.
He's the 1987 lead singer of Arsenal whose activities in and around the Bourbon Room (the fictionalized Whiskey A-Go-Go) on Sunset Strip are simultaneously meant to launch his solo career and save the club's environment of "sweat, ear-shattering music and puke" from the depredation's of the mayor's moralizing and bitter wife, who wants to level the joint.
She has her own reasons, of course, but they don't begin to explain why she's played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, any more than we can be sure why Baldwin, Brand and Mary J. Blige signed on the dotted line in this baby either. (They probably saw the stage jukebox musical and believed the movie version would be innocent "fun." Then again, they may have cacklingly known it was going to be expensive, hilarious, mega-camp.)
Our main story is about dewy young lovers played by Julianne Hough, the former "Dancing with the Stars" pixie currently tangoing through life with Ryan Seacrest, and Diego Boneta.
Can they reach rock stardom in big, bad L.A.? Or will the sinful life of pole dancing and boy bands defeat them? Will Paul Giamatti be a slick, almost silent-film villain in apparent perpetual search of a mustache to twirl?
While this is going on, you're getting 1980s hits, hair band and otherwise, in your ear -- Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n Roll" and Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," to be sure. The movie is also 30 feet deep in Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart," Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" etc., etc.
The connection to a swollen version of Waters-style camp is by no means accidental. When Waters' little indie fantasy "Hairspray" was turned into a theatrical excrescence, the movie version starring Cruise's fellow Scientologist and TMZ patsy John Travolta was directed by Adam Shankman.
Who is, bless him, the fellow who now gives us this.
Not every road to cinematic glory passes through high quality, you know. Sometimes cinematic immortality is achieved in another way altogether. I give you "Rock of Ages" and, if you're anything like me, you'll have a hilarious 123 minutes with it. "Innocent fun," though? Not exactly.
ROCK OF AGES
1 star (out of 4)
STARRING: Tom Cruise, Julianne Hough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin
DIRECTOR: Adam Shankman
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
THE LOWDOWN: Off-Broadway musical of '80s hair band rock turns into screen musical about dewy young performers afflicted with excessive self-confidence.