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"Rock of Ages" brings the noise

"Rock of Ages"
Grade: B+
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Tom Cruise
Director: Adam Shankman
Length: 123 minutes
Rating: PG-13

"Rock of Ages" wastes no time setting a tone of deliriously over-the-top giddiness, establishing its musical bonafides in the very first scene. As Sherri Christian (played by real-life country singer Julianne Hough) chases her Hollywood dreams via bus, all the passengers break into song on Night Ranger's 1984 power ballad "Sister Christian." At the screening I attended, the "Motorin'/What's your price for flight" chorus induced the first of many guffaws in the audience.

That's a pretty good indicator of what you're in for here: cheese, glorious cheese baked up by the sort of people whose frontal lobes have never once been darkened by the thought, "You know, that's just too freakin' obvious." But if that sounds like criticism, it's not. "Rock of Ages" is as enjoyable as it is preposterous, so long as you're not expecting much beyond a fun romp through various signposts of the hair-metal era.

Based on the 2006 jukebox musical, "Rock of Ages" draws songs from Guns N' Roses, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Scorpions and other metal giants from the time when MTV actually played music videos. The film is set in 1987, and it's staged, lit and choreographed like a video of that period.

What plot there is centers on Sherrie's romance with Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rock singer. But that's by far the weakest part of the film. Too much of "Rock of Ages" consists of the romantic leads giving each other pep talks and telegraphing future plot developments.

The subplots, however, are delicious, thanks to sharp dialogue and a terrific supporting cast. Russell Brand puts in another great piece of character-actor non-acting as a debauched rocker working for seedy club owner Alec Baldwin (they also have a duet toward the end of the film that must be seen to be believed). Catherine Zeta-Jones plays an anti-rock crusader with a dirty secret she hints at by performing Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" just a little too zestfully. Mary J. Blige is a strip-joint madame with soul, and Paul Giamatti is perfect as the quintessential oily manager dude.

Improbably, however, the film's biggest show-stealer is Tom Cruise as burned-out rock star Stacee Jax. He certainly isn't the first name that comes to mind for a part like this, but his cross between Axl Rose and Jim Morrison as a bemused hard-rock shaman is spot on.

With Jones leading a Bible-thumping drive to shut down Baldwin's rock club, much of "Rock of Ages" plays like a heavy-metal "Footloose." There's something almost quaint about revisiting this long-abandoned cultural divide -- nowadays, similarly inclined culture warriors are more likely to be fulminating about birth certificates or gay marriage -- but "Rock of Ages" is very much a snapshot of an era.

And yet it's an era whose echoes will be familiar, because they're still playing out. "Rock of Ages" closes with an all-hands-on-deck version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," and darned if it doesn't sound more like Taylor Swift's arena-country than Poison's '80s-vintage arena-rock.

Rock of ages, for the ages.

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