By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
There's no room for subtlety in '80s hair metal, and bless Tom Cruise and his vainglorious ego for understanding that blaring tenet of the Sunset Strip.
As Rock of Ages' scene-stealing Stacee Jaxx, a shameless, shirtless rock deity, Cruise struts and wails with Axl-Rosian excess, fully understanding that in this line of business cocksure posturing trumps genuine vocal chops every single time.
When he's prowling the stage with his band Arsenal (a note-perfect fictional name, by the way), Cruise, who somehow turns 50 next month, especially looks the part of a besotted howler, the spotlight illuminating every poster-worthy pose and ridiculously ripped ab.
That helps because Cruise is an actor, not a singer (Top Gun bar scene, anyone?). His voice has been digitized and cleaned up for the movie, especially on Guns N' Roses' Paradise City, which now sounds like anyone trying to do an Axl impression.
Every now and then, though, Cruise's nasally timber sneaks through. I can honestly say I like the Stacee Jaxx version of Wanted Dead or Alive better than Bon Jovi's. In the end, Cruise delivers a larger-than-life, silly-fun vocal performance that will almost certainly inspire a new generation of eager karaoke singers.
The rest of the film's music, and accompanying all-smiles soundtrack, usually follows that same bigger-is-better rule of Greed Decade rock 'n' roll. Glee's music producer savant Adam Anders is usually a master of the mashup, and if a few of them don't work (Juke Box Hero/I Love Rock 'n Roll), more than a few do, especially when driving the various plotlines (We Built This City/We're Not Gonna Take It).
Credit director Adam Shankman for letting Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin warble and croak as themselves. As the naive leads, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta sing well enough, although without much nuance. And I really wish Catherine Zeta-Jones did more musicals — a good singer but a great dancer with comic oomph.
Next to Cruise, however, the movie's biggest musical thrills are provided by Mary J. Blige. Allowing the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to tackle the '80s canon is a revelation; her take on Pat Benatar's Shadows of the Night is legitimately chills-inducing, and when she uncorks Any Way You Want It, now a strip-club rager, the movie and the soundtrack become absolutely transcendent.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.