The meaning of “motoring” in Night Ranger’s universe may be a mystery for the ages, but one thing from their hit anthem is clear: Sister Christian was a slut. (Wait, are we still “recapturing” that word? OK: Girlfriend slept around.) Not so in Adam Shankman’s adaptation of the Broadway hit Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical centered on the earworms of the 1980s. Here, a rendition of “Sister Christian” opens the film, sung by an Oklahoma girl on a bus to L.A in 1987. She’s PG-13 chaste, with $17, a suitcase full of records, and dreams of becoming a singer. She’s literally motoring, with the emotional support of her grandma and the vocal support of the other passengers, all nodding their heads in time to the music.
The scene is sincere yet goofy, perfectly setting the tone for Shankman’s enormously entertaining follow-up to 2007’s Hairspray. That Oklahoma dreamer is Sherrie (Julianne Hough), who when she arrives in L.A. is immediately mugged—and almost as quickly meets Drew (Diego Boneta), another wannabe singer who’s currently barbacking at the legendary-but-fictional Bourbon Room and who gets her a job there. Her boss is the scuzzily long-haired Dennis (Alec Baldwin). Dennis’ undefined hanger-on is the scuzzily long-haired Lonny (Russell Brand). And the potential savior of the Bourbon Room, which is about to go bankrupt, is the clearly Axl Rose-modeled Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), the bonkers rocker who’s about to go solo, allegedly (according to a Rolling Stone reporter played by Malin Akerman) because he’s so difficult he’s alienated his bandmates.
Also, the L.A. mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a conservative zealot, wants to shut the Bourbon Room down. There’s a lot going on here. And it’s all tied together by dusty Billboard-toppers such as “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “I Wanna Rock,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and, naturally, “Rock of Ages.”
Of course, it’s all a lot more fun if you’re of a certain age and familiar with the soundtrack; for example, you’ll miss the joke if you don’t recognize the opening bars of Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” cut off before it gets to the lyrics, played when Drew is gazing at his love interest’s time card. Or, continuing with the Journey theme, when Drew sings Sherrie part of a “song he’s been working on”: “…for a smile they can share the night,” he warbles, then says, “and it goes on, and on, and on.” The screenplay, by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the Broadway version’s book), and Allan Loeb, is like that: For the most part, when things start getting too serious or gushy, a joke relying on your memory of the musical source material is thrown in. Jaxx and the Rolling Stone reporter duet on Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and Akerman’s character sings, “I’m feeling so much love!” while lying on a pool table with her legs spread.
Sometimes it’s funny for the wrong reasons—which is to say it might be downright homophobic. Spoiler alert, but do read on: Baldwin’s Dennis and Brand’s Lonny break out into REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” It’s totally played for laughs. Is it funny because of the syrupy song? Is it funny because two Johnny Scumbags are professing their love for each other via said syrupy song? Or is it funny because it’s two dudes, period? Considering this is directed by Shankman, who is gay, it’s hard to accept he’d make a joke of homosexuality. But it’s also hard to see it any other way.
Out of the terrific and awfully game cast, Cruise is perhaps the biggest surprise. (Though seeing Baldwin sing “I Love Rock N’ Roll” is amusing, too.) Spacey and bizarre offstage and slithery and energetic on-, he does a fine Axl, with furry jackets, bandanas, and a self-absorption as deep as Guns N’ Roses were huge. Between Rock of Ages and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, it’s safe to say that Cruise has shed his bad-publicity personal weirdness and is firmly back in megastar territory. He’s a cowboy, and on box-office returns he’ll ride.