We've seen the emphatic return of so many 1980s pop-culture touchstones, from tinny synthesizers to white sunglasses. But there's one Reagan-era institution young revivalists haven't really embraced: hair metal.
There's a reason for that. It's terrible.
I know that because I was a teenager in the 1980s, and I remember being disappointed at what happened to metal. It was a fairly reputable rock genre when it was dominated by smart pioneers like Led Zeppelin. But the musicianship and, especially, the songwriting suffered at the hands of cynical pop-metal practitioners like Poison and Whitesnake.
So I was prepared to hate Rock of Ages, the hair-metal jukebox musical based on the Broadway show. But I was smiling when I walked out of a screening. Why? Because it's a good musical. It's energetically performed and resourcefully designed. The choreography is imaginative. I especially like a dance routine that prominently features metal's iconic body movement, the head-bang.
The young leads, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, are attractive. Their characters face numerous hurdles as, in 1987, they strive to 1) be lovers and 2) break into the Los Angeles music scene.
The songbook holds up better than I expected. Tunes like "Sister Christian," "Nothing But a Good Time" and "Heaven Isn't Too Far Away" sound pretty good and actually are improved by the anonymous Broadway singing style that largely prevails.
There is fine work by famous actors. As an exhausted, stringy-haired nightclub owner, Alec Baldwin turns in a performance that is similar to most Alec Baldwin performances, and is wonderful. Paul Giamatti likewise hits familiar Giamatti notes as a sleazy rock agent. Catherine Zeta-Jones is steely and fun as the zealous leader of anti-rock activists. Russell Brand gets big laughs as Baldwin's mulleted factotum, and the homoeroticism that was always latent in hair metal is cheerfully brought out of the closet in Brand and Baldwin's funny big number.
Then there is Tom Cruise. I am astonished by his turn as a booze-swilling, groupie-groping singer. His costume incorporates fur and a massive, jewel-encrusted codpiece. His body is taut and tatted, and he brings a mysterious energy, an unnerving stillness, to his comedy dialogue scenes. That's in contrast to his wild stage performances. Cruise makes for an explosive rock frontman who seems to have studied at the Mick Jagger school of histrionics. I'm impressed by the actorly commitment Cruise brings to this role, and I hope he wears the codpiece to next year's Academy Awards.
Before I saw the film, I predicted that Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" would play a major role. I was right. That song has enjoyed a remarkable revival since writer and director Patty Jenkins deployed it so brilliantly in her serial killer film Monster (2003). I would never have foreseen Journey's newfound respectability, but "Don't Stop Believing" is indeed a sturdy piece of work - an omnipresent secular hymn for our time, like John Lennon's "Imagine."
My complaint about Rock of Ages is that at 123 minutes, it's too long. If I were in charge of cutting, I might start with the subplot about Hough's work in a strip joint (Mary J. Blige plays its owner). Or the subplot about Boneta's career detour in a boy band. Or the series of lame sight gags centered on Cruise's pet baboon. There's just not much room for innovation in baboon-related humor.