THE notable feature of Tom Cruise’s acting career has been its remarkably consistent quality. Unlike most Hollywood stars, who have their ups and downs, Cruise’s performances have been uniformly dull and forgettable. A little harsh? I don’t think so. It’s not that there haven’t been great successes ( Top Gun, Mission: Impossible), and some fine films ( Minority Report and the deeply enigmatic Eyes Wide Shut). It’s just that Tom’s best films would almost certainly have been every bit as good, or better, with another name above the title.
But things may be changing. In Rock of Ages, a musical extravaganza based on the glam rock era of the 1980s, Cruise plays an ageing rock idol called Stacee Jaxx, and the part seems to have been made for him. Who else could bring to it such a convincing air of malign smugness and languid self-absorption? It may be the best thing he has done.
Based on a 2006 Broadway show written by Chris D’Arienzo, Rock of Ages has a soundtrack crammed with famous tracks from the 80s. And the answer to the big question is: yes he can. No one would call him another Pavarotti, or Michael Jackson. And I don’t for a moment believe the film’s director, Adam Shankman, when he assures us that Cruise spent five hours a day practising his singing for the film. But make no mistake, he can sing. He has a light, well-articulated voice that goes well on its own and can be beefed up for the big ensemble numbers. Everyone was surprised when Nicole Kidman managed to hold a tune in Moulin Rouge!. But I think Tom is a better singer than Nicole, and certainly better than Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!. If only Stacee were a nicer character.
It’s a big, splashy, warm-hearted film, with some beautifully staged production numbers. And, unlike most musicals, this one has a good story. There was a time when the plots of musicals hung on nothing more than someone saying, ‘‘ Hey, why don’t we get together and put on a show?’’ But in Rock of Ages we get a rather sweet boy-meets-girl story as well as a darker subplot involving the mayor of Los Angeles (Bryan Cranston), who is campaigning to rid the city of vice.
The mayor wants to shut down LA’s Sunset Strip, where a culture of sex, drugs and rock ’ n’ roll is corrupting the city’s youth. Driving the campaign is his scheming wife, nicely played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who proved her song-and-dance credentials in Chicago and in Rock of Ages delivers one of the best and bounciest numbers ( Hit Me With Your Best Shot), belted out in a church with a chorus of religious zealots, complete with sexy gyrations.
I liked the two fresh-faced youngsters — wannabe rocker and songwriter Drew (Diego Boneta), who dreams of making the big time in LA, and small-time Oklahoma girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough), who lands a job as a waitress at the Bourbon Room, the biggest and seediest rock venue on the Strip. The Bourbon Room is the first target of the mayor’s clean-up campaign and needs a big run of success to ward off financial collapse.
Enter Stacee, frontman of the rock group Arsenal, who is planning to launch his solo career. When Stacee makes his first tattooed and leather-studded appearance at the Bourbon Room women swoon in his presence. There’s some fine comic business with an awestruck female reporter from Rolling Stone (Malin Akerman), who coaxes some gnomic utterances from Stacee for her readers before joining him in another of the show’s best tracks, I Want to Know What Love Is.
I’m assuming that all these songs will be well known to rock fans of the era, but Rock of Ages is a film for all ages. My one complaint is that it’s about 20 minutes too long and some of the jokes and situations are laboured.
But at its best it’s brash, funny and noisy, the blend of intimacy and spectacle works well career ahead of him playing mature-aged rock stars. IF Elena were a Hollywood film, and not a Russian one, we would probably take it as a straightforward psychological thriller. Well, perhaps not entirely straightforward — the story is too grim for that — but as a kind of chilling morality tale, not far in spirit from the noir classics of the 40s, with their appetite for greed and betrayal. Elena is a film Claude Chabrol might have made in France in the 50s, with his black humour and clear eye for middle-class degeneracy. Only in Russia, perhaps, will it be seen as a vision of a country in moral disarray, where ‘‘ humanitarian ideals are being devalued, leading people to turn inwards, gravitating towards their ancient instincts . . . survival of the fittest, survival at any cost.’’ The quoted words are those of the film’s director, Andrei Zvyagintsev, and he should know.
Seeing Elena as a metaphor for modern Russia — its festering social unrest, its endemic political corruption — certainly makes it seem more dispiriting than it otherwise might have been. It would be difficult to imagine a bleaker portrayal of life in a modern Russian city.
It’s not clear where the film is set. The domestic backgrounds look comfortable enough, but for much of the film we are on the by a smoking nuclear power station. In a long opening shot we study the outside of a house, framed by leafless wintry branches. Then we cut to Elena (Nadezhda Markina) as she wakes from her night’s sleep, dresses reluctantly and prepares breakfast for her husband, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), who greets the day with a similar lack of enthusiasm.
Vladimir is a businessman, probably in his 60s — not, perhaps, one of the new breed of Russian oligarchs but well enough off to be able to spend his days at home. We never see him doing business or going to an office. His manner is hardened, taciturn, severe. Elena, who has a kindly care-worn face and once worked as a nurse, is now a full-time housewife. And each has children from a previous marriage.
Elena’s son Sergei (Alexei Rozin) is a wastrel who refuses to get a job, despite having a wife and child to support. Elena gives him enough money to keep him going, but it is money she has to beg from her husband, who keeps tight control of the household budget. Though Vladimir is regularly persuaded to part with some cash, his patience is running out. Why can’t Sergei find work? Why can’t he join the army? (These are also questions we ask ourselves.)
It’s one of those films where the pace is slow and not much seems to be happening. But Zvyagintsev generates a mood of extraordinary tension and unease. Elena seems resigned to a life of domestic servitude and demeaning supplication. Then, one day, swimming at his gym, Vladimir suffers a heart attack and is visited in hospital by his estranged daughter Katya (Evgenia Konushkina), another lost and angry soul who treats him with contempt.
Like Sergei, Katya has never worked; she offspring who you know will be sick and doomed, since the parents are sick and doomed themselves’’). But Vladimir loves her despite everything. He decides to make a will in which the bulk of his estate will be left to his daughter, with a modest annuity only for Elena. These intentions he confides to Elena herself — a grave mistake, as it happens.
In many a Hollywood thriller relatives have conspired, alone or with lovers, to get their hands on some deluded husband’s fortune. Human nature was seen to be irredeemably base, but these were no more than crime stories, after all, with justice done in the closing scenes. Zvyagintsev takes us into deeper and darker territory. His characters are trapped in loneliness and isolation. There is no comfort to be found in honest work or service. Communication is stunted. Everyone seems to be hooked on television game shows and absorbed in their phantom worlds of smartphones and electronic toys. Sergei kicks a ball around with other young drifters and, when the mood takes him, is ready for a spot of violent gang warfare with other neighbourhood thugs.
Zvyagintsev is best known for The Return (2003), about a father who returns home after a mysterious 12-year absence to subject his two sons to harsh discipline on a remote island to test their manhood. Both films are marked by quiet desperation and ugly, simmering tensions between parent and child. Has Russia lost faith in father-figures, in the benevolent authority of the state? Elena is distinguished by performances of haunting intensity from the main cast, camerawork of chilly desolation from Mikhail Krichman and a sinister, minatory score from Philip Glass. Whatever we make of Zvyagintsev’s larger thesis about
Show us yer tatts . . . Tom Cruise keeps it real as a self-absorbed ageing pop idol in the musical Rock of Ages