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Celebrating rock in the age of hairspray
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Alec Baldwin as Dennis Dupree, left, and Russell Brand as Lonny in New Line Cinema’s rock musical “Rock of Ages,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. - photo by David James

‘Rock of Ages’

Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Alex Baldwin, Tom Cruise

Rated: PG-13, for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language

Runtime: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Bottom line: Light fun for hair metal fans

“Rock of Ages” is proof that whatever is edgy and threatening initially will someday become mainstream and benign, especially if it is adapted it into a Broadway musical.

In the 1980s, heavy metal and L.A.’s Sunset Strip music scene were seen by many as the (next) decline of western civilization. Punk hadn’t destroyed all the children, but surely a bunch of partying dudes who looked like ladies would.

It was a time of loud music, raging testosterone, substance abuse and soaring stock prices for anyone who made hairspray. Subversive and dangerous at the time, it appears quaint and naive in hindsight.

At least, that’s how “Rock of Ages” pictures it.

The movie cobbles together a story out of song lyric fragments, and features one mash-up musical number after another. Surprisingly, it works pretty well.

Our small-town girl living in a lonely world is Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough). She buses out to Hollywood to pursue her dreams, whatever they are. She introduces herself as a singer, but she never actually tries singing as a career.

Instead, she becomes a waitress at The Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the famed Whisky A Go-Go) and arm candy for Drew (Diego Boneta), a bartender and fellow singer.

Drew does get to chase his rock and roll dreams. Club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) is going broke and is counting on a gig with rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save his club. The opening act falls through at the last minute, though, so Drew’s band fills in.

Meanwhile, a number of subplots provide a rich backdrop of characters.

The mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are trying to save the children by cleaning up the Strip. Russell Brand spews hilariously snotty lines as Dennis’ right hand man. Paul Giamatti hits smarmy heights as Stacee’s ruthless manager.

Malin Akerman plays a Rolling Stone journalist trying to break through Stacee’s rock god facade. Mary J. Blige shows up late in the film as an exotic club owner and outclasses the rest of the cast with her vocals.

The cast is great across the board, especially Cruise. The oft-maligned actor nails Stacee’s affected intensity and nonsensical detachment. It’s a style of humor we have never seen from him.

But what will leave your jaw hanging open is Cruise’s voice. He does all of his own singing, belting out vocally challenging tunes like “Paradise City” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Say what you will, but Cruise continues to grow as a performer. There might be nothing the guy can’t do.

“Rock of Ages” succeeds by embracing the absurdity and debauchery of the ’80s metal scene. The movie contains the requisite musical numbers built around love ballads, but rather than aiming for the usual saccharin sweetness, each of those scenes combines the heartfelt song with ironic sight gags.

I highly recommend looking at the movie’s soundtrack before seeing it, because if you don’t like the music, you won’t like the film. Not that the soundtrack truly captures the era. It contains as much classic rock as ’80s metal.

Nor does the movie attempt to lend any insight into what turned the Sunset Strip into a brief Camelot of excess, androgyny and hedonism — in the midst of an extremely repressed, politically conservative period in American culture.

This is extremely light entertainment.

The movie also ignores the fact that, despite the embarrassing fashion and regrettable sexism, the metal scene produced a slew of outstanding musicians.

This is mostly a nostalgic movie about the L.A. metal scene for people who only experienced it from afar and avoided the era’s dark trappings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But for a period that proved so dangerous to so many people, this is a very safe movie.

This won’t be a movie for the ages, but it is fun for those who don’t need nothin’ but a good time.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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