Lestat is back, and he's on American Idol.
That's the basic takeaway of Rock of Ages, which uses Tom Cruise to try cranking the successful off-Broadway jukebox musical up to 11. The movie makes it to about 4, mostly because of Cruise's high-singing, liquor-guzzling, fur-draped turn as busted Sunset Strip casualty Stacee Jaxx. Squinting through Axl Rose-colored glasses and shaking his wig through GNR's "Paradise City," the star makes Jaxx a Los Angeles bloodsucker to match the desiccated-rocker version of that Anne Rice character Cruise played in Interview With the Vampire almost 20 years ago. This time, he pretty much nails the part.
And that's really saying something, because he has to sing Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Foreigner's "I Wanna Know What Love Is" back to back. Which is where the American Idol part comes in: The level of musical talent on display here, despite an almost off-puttingly game cast, is barely worth a text-message vote, let alone a $10 ticket.
Yeah, yeah, that's kind of the point for director Adam Shankman and screenwriters Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb (sharing credit with the play's author, Chris D'Arienzo). This is winking nostalgia delivered by voices that mostly belong to people who should roll the windows up tight when they sing in the car. But the shock of Rock of Ages is that its karaoke versions of a bunch of B-list AOR charters make you miss the relative craft of the originals. Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" — sung here by a chunk of the cast in one of this indulgent movie's glacial montages — is, by any reasonable measure, an abhorrent piece of music. But it works on the radio because you're hearing it performed, with the conviction of men under tight contract, by the idiots who thought it up. Even when they don't mean it, they mean it more than poor Paul Giamatti could possibly mean it.
The same goes for most of the other songs on the bloated Rock of Ages tablet. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand's showpiece reading of REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" becomes a rainbow anthem to unexpected dude love, thereby dedicating way more thought to the song than it can structurally tolerate.
What counts for plot (boy meets girl, boy and girl suffer sub-Three's Company sexual misunderstanding, boy joins boy band, girl starts dancing at Mary J. Blige's strip club, Journey ensues) has similar load-bearing issues. Its young leads, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, have narrow shoulders, even for this exercise in MTV cultural anthropology. (For Hough, this is something of a sequel to the Footloose remake she starred in last year.) Boneta's "I Wanna Rock," his character's first big stage moment, comes out sounding a little cartoon-mousey. But reality-TV talent shows have made the world safe for generic, thin singing, meaning here that Baldwin, Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones sound — well, they at least all sound like grown-up people.
Def Leppard never got around to licensing "Rock of Ages" to the production that's borrowing the title, and Europe's "The Final Countdown," prominent in the stage version, is MIA here. But there's ample FM-dial compensation in hearing three — count 'em — Foreigner songs in the movie. And why not? At 123 minutes, Rock of Ages isn't so much a hot single as it is a double concept record played by a DJ who has locked himself in the booth. There's some part of this 1980s-genuflecting crap for just about everybody.