Rock of Ages is based on the '80s-nostalgia jukebox musical that paid campy-sincere tribute to the cheesy glories of hair metal, and the movie gets the cheesy part down fast. It opens with Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a blond girl from the cornfields, taking a cross-country trek to find fame and fortune in L.A. On a Greyhound bus, she launches into a very pretty rendition of the irresistible Night Ranger power ballad ''Sister Christian,'' and the other passengers all clean-cut Midwestern types then belt out the chorus (''Motoring! What's your price for flight?''), which is so odd it gave me hope that the movie was going to have the audacity a terrific musical needs.
But as soon as Sherrie shows up on the Sunset Strip (it's 1987), where she lands a job as a cocktail waitress at the Bourbon Room a beer-spattered metal club and locks glances with a cuddly headbanger named Drew (Diego Boneta), you start to realize what kind of movie Rock of Ages is going to be. It's a metal musical with a soft-rock soul, clunkily shot on sets that look like sets, with actors like Alec Baldwin (as the grumpy club manager) and Russell Brand (as his right-hand wastrel) in wigs that you can practically see pasted on. (It requires a certain cluelessness to take Russell Brand, who probably looked like a rock star at birth, and put him in a fake ebony shag that screams poseur.) This is also the sort of movie in which people flash devil horns as if they were modeling for mall T-shirts, and in which the central boy-meets-girl romance is so toothless and bland it makes High School Musical look like Cabaret. Yet for all that, the musical numbers in Rock of Ages...
Well, what I wanted to write is that the musical numbers make it all worthwhile. That they're joyfully decadent and nostalgic fun. That they take songs like ''Any Way You Want It'' and ''Cum On Feel the Noize'' and wire you into their suburban-rebel, trash-the-bedroom vibe. On stage, Rock of Ages sizzled and popped. But the film's director, Adam Shankman, who did such a great job of bringing the Broadway version of Hairspray to the big screen, is a lot less sure-footed when it comes to the postures and emotions of rowdy kick-ass Americana. Most of the numbers in Rock of Ages are flatly shot and choreographed, and they look as if they'd been edited together with a meat cleaver. With rare exceptions, they don't channel the excitement of the music they stultify it.
The movie, like the show, presents itself as a kind of Footloose of the Sunset Strip. It's about the moment when metal, within the club scene of L.A., had begun to cohabit with the slinky, fleshpot narcissism of the sex industry an unholy communion of tattoos and torn fishnets. The plot turns on the attempt of the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his uptight wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to lead the local church types in a crusade to shut down the Bourbon Room, and the sleaze-versus-the-squares thing is pretty old hat, even when delivered as '80s kitsch. Yet it might have worked had, say, the church ladies been given a good number. Instead, they sing ''Hit Me With Your Best Shot'' (but why?), with fist-locomotion moves copped from the ''Beat It'' video (but why?), all of it so robotic and chopped up that Zeta-Jones' sexy puritan, leading this by-the-rules brigade, registers less as a dancing force than as an insane person.
Sherrie becomes a stripper, Drew becomes a boy-band sellout, and none of it has any weight. In the end, however, there is a reason to see Rock of Ages, and that's Tom Cruise's funny, louche performance as Stacee Jaxx, the film's jaded and dissolute Axl Rose metal-god figure. Cruise, holding his pistol-tattooed, zero-body-fat flesh at a drunken 45-degree angle, has the look and the poses down flat, but he also gives Stacee a haunted underside. He has seen the dark side of fame, and it's written all over his face, but he's not going to open up about it not even to the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) he seduces and then falls for. I wish that these two didn't have to do a striptease as they duet on the ultraromantic ''I Want to Know What Love Is.'' (Talk about an off-key concept!) But Cruise, who can truly sing, does a rendition of ''Wanted Dead or Alive'' that rocks it and finds the deep soul of it. At that moment, you can glimpse the movie that Rock of Ages should have been. C