Our past has caught up with us.
Many people lived through the decade of the 1980s but have been able to move on, repress their memories of that bad-hair era, and lead semi-productive lives. As a group, only the U.S. Congress seems stuck in a time warp.
But now, "Rock of Ages" is here to drag the rest of us back to Donkey Kong, phone-book-sized cellphones, power cords from blow dryers and above all, power chords for communication. Oddly, there's less coke than I remembered. Mostly, this movie just wants everyone to strike a pose and say, "Cheese."
A musical that migrated from a Los Angeles club to Broadway now makes its way back to Hollywood, with a high-powered cast, a high-octane score and almost endearingly low expectations of its audience. Hey kids, let's get wasted and put on a show! This is a movie where Russell Brand actually makes a useful contribution.
Depending on your tolerance for Classic Rock, though, so does almost everyone else here. Whether from commitment, talent, or native archness, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Mary J. Blige and Malin Ackerman all strut their stuff while apparently getting down with their not-so-bad selves.
Above all, it has a power source in Tom Cruise on a whole other level of strutting, rutting, drinking and obscurely thinking as rock god Stacey Jaxx. In a reminder that he is one of our great performers, Cruise owns the stage and the dressing rooms of the Bourbon Club, unleashing musical and sexual energy on anyone within range.
With leather vest open or shed, leather pants half undone, Cruise carries "Rock of Ages" from Camp Town to the hall of the Lizard King. Even with temporary tattoos snaking across his musculature, Cruise retains his own glittering surface, at once magnetizing the viewer's gaze and reflecting it back. He suggests Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison in his dissolute phase, behind thicker walls.
While Cruise is the star, his story unfortunately plays second-fiddle to that of lovestruck ingenues. The action begins promisingly enough, with a bus passing a sign, "You are now leaving Oklahoma." That's cause for singing as Julianne Hough, as wannabe Sherrie Christian, heads for the very distant bright lights. Soon, she's being robbed on the heavily populated, brightly lit Sunset Strip, or at least a "Hollywood" version of it closer to Hollywood, Florida.
Cheer up; at least that way she meets equally cute Diego Boneta as Drew Boley, who has a menial job at the Bourbon Club but also dreams of the spotlight. Drew quickly convinces lovably gruff club boss Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) to give his new crush a job. Muffy and Biff meet at the Malt Shoppe, where everyone is swilling whiskey to no discernible effect while they await the cue for their next song. It's magical, or at least unreal.
While the story comes straight from the 1950s, or 1930s, there are some period-specific touches. Mostly, that comes via the well-tailored, tightly wound Patricia Whitmore (Zeta-Jones). She's just gotten her husband, Bryan Cranston in light-comic mode, elected mayor, and as Patty proclaims, "It's a two-fer."
She has a plan to clean-up this imaginary Strip, apparently for new development. Her campaign comes complete with a moral façade, something about "getting Satan off our streets" and presumably into the executive suites. Like so many of us, though, Patty has a history about which she would rather not think. That makes her perfect for this musical, as does Zeta-Jones' ability to deliver a vampy version of "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" complete with upper cuts and kicks directed at the camera.
The source material for Chris D’Arienzo's original show, as well as this script that he wrote with Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, takes us back to the very dim mists of 1987, when Tipper Gore launched an attack on the threat that salacious rock-and-roll posed to our children's precious bodily fluids.
Tipper's real-life bête noire was Prince, formerly known as a glyph, and his great album "Purple Rain." (And you wonder why the Supreme Court felt called upon to step in and protect the voters from their mistaken inclination to elect her husband Al as president?) But that Prince would be too hip, not to mention too musical, for the marketers behind "Rock of Ages."
Fortunately for them, 1987 was also the year that the paler Guns N' Roses, conveniently based in L.A., released their first album. So instead of struggling with multi-layered musicianship, "Rocks of Ages" only asks your semi-favorite stars to warble their way through power ditties by Journey, Starship, Twisted Sister, Foreigner and for sure Guns N' Roses. They perform credibly; Baldwin and Brand even share a couple of romantic duets.
It's a reminder that the model for the movie's club, the Whisky a Go-Go, earned its place in our culture by banning The Doors after Morrison's in-depth performance of "The End." There's hip and then there's Hollywood hip.
But here's a guilty secret that "Rock of Ages" has resurrected from the past century. People of a certain age, especially white people of a certain age, like this stuff. You know who you are.
And however much critics may fill sound and space with exhortations to standards, towards an ideal, another secret is that art doesn't necessarily have to be good to be entertaining. On screen, Tom Cruise rocks. His latest movie qualifies as easy watching.