What happens when a minor role goes to a major star like Tom Cruise? It was good news for everyone in 2008, when Cruise's rap-slinging Les Grossman character made "Tropic Thunder" a must-see and transformed the couch-jumping actor back into a likable, bankable star. The hair-metal musical "Rock of Ages" is hoping for a repeat by top-billing Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, frontman for a rock band called Arsenal. Cruise once again steals the show, but this time he drives it straight off a cliff.
Without Cruise, "Rock of Ages" would have been merely a bland, bright-eyed version of the winking Broadway show about L.A.'s sleazy Sunset Strip during the 1980s. Mexican crooner Diego Boneta, in his first major American movie, and dancer-country singer Julianne Hough are pop cuties miscast as hopeful hair-swingers (everything they sing, from Foreigner to Whitesnake, sounds like a "Glee" medley), while everyone else mostly just goofs around. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand play managers of The Bourbon Room (a Pepsi-ized version of the real Whisky a Go Go), Catherine Zeta-Jones plays an anti-rocker and Malin Akerman pretends to be a Rolling Stone reporter. Paul Giamatti, as an oily rock mogul, wisely tackles just one quick lyric; powerhouse Mary J. Blige, as a nudie-bar owner named Justice, effortlessly nukes her castmates.
Director Adam Shankman ("Hairspray") tries to breeze through it all, but Cruise, as Jaxx, turns a once-minor figure of fun into a malevolent, fever-eyed megalomaniac who sucks up almost half the film. Singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " in an out-of-body daze and babbling like a paranoid schizophrenic ("You can't burn a fire-Phoenix!"), Jaxx is ostensibly a spoof of fame-addled rock stars, but he has none of the hair-swinging fun of a David Lee Roth or a Brett Michaels. Unfortunately, the celebrity Jaxx most resembles is the ranting, unhinged version of Cruise we've been trying to forget.
PLOT An adaptation of the Broadway musical about hopeful rockers on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. RATING PG-13 (language, sexuality)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE This bushy-tailed musical is unexpectedly stabbed in the heart by Cruise as a brooding, humorless, half-insane megastar.
Back story: Director says Cruise rocks
Whatever doubts Adam Shankman had about tackling the all-star, all-"hair-metal"-hits jukebox musical "Rock of Ages" disappeared the minute he sat in a theater and watched it onstage.
"The audience's reaction was nothing short of rabid," says Shankman, 47. "That sort of enthusiasm for the music, the energy and the fun -- I had to try and be a part of that."
Shankman -- who directed the big-screen version of "Hairspray" -- also had the daunting task of showcasing Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Malin Akerman as singers. He had an A-list cast, but only Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Chicago") and singing/dancing actress Julianne Hough ("Footloose") were known for their musical chops.
"The person who most surprised me, at the end of the day, was Tom Cruise. We'd been talking about him starring as burnt-out rocker Stacee Jaxx] and building up to start the movie for a year. By the time we got there, I knew that vocally, he was going to be good. It wasn't until I cut his performance together that I saw how brilliant he was. There's a little Jim Morrison in him -- this self-proclaimed 'poet.' Stacee has this weird, quiet genius about him, like a lot of rock stars who only knew how to live onstage. But offstage, he's a mess. Tom nailed it." -- McClatchy-Tribune