His back arched and chest pumped out, his head craned sideways, his voice never rising much above a whisper except when he is belting out '80s power-pop anthems onstage, Tom Cruise gives the finest performance that we have seen by any actor so far this year -- among the very finest of his career -- in Rock of Ages, Adam Shankman's sometimes wobbly but mostly ecstatic rock musical.
Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, notorious lead singer of the famed metal hair band Asylum, circa Los Angeles, 1987. The character is an inspired mashup of any number of other real-life figures: the skimpy, leather jock strap and bejeweled, dragon-head codpiece looks like something Tommy Lee might have worn while playing drums for Mötley Crüe; the flowing fur coat and long hair that hangs straight into his face brings to mind Axl Rose in his Guns N' Roses glory days. He talks like Jim Morrison, all stream-of-conscious whispers, and he's got them moves like Jagger (or, at least like Joe Elliott of Def Leppard).
Cruise throws himself into the part with joyful abandon, satirizing these rock 'n' roll goofballs, but also displaying deep affection for them. He reminds us that onto their oversexed, boozed-up personas, we projected all our fantasies of a more liberated way of life in the otherwise buttoned-up 1980s.
He is funny and often very sexy, and when he sings one of a half-dozen well-known hits, like Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me or Bon Jovi's Wanted: Dead or Alive, his voice displays surprising heft and conviction. That you never entirely forget you are watching Tom Cruise is also part of the performance's pleasure: Who would have thought a performer wound so famously tight would suddenly be so willing to let it rip?
Based on the popular Broadway show, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical in the fashion of Mamma Mia!, in which a collection of well-known songs are re-contextualized and used to move a decidedly flimsy plot forward. Sherrie (Julianne Hough, from last year's Footloose remake) is the small-town girl from Tulsa, who journeys to Los Angeles to make it big in the music industry. There, she meets Drew (relative unknown Diego Boneta), a boyish barback at a famed club called The Bourbon Room, who has his own fantasies of rock 'n' roll glory. When they meet and discover their shared passion, well, what else is there to do but croon a duet of Foreigner's Waiting for a Girl Like You?
One of the treats of Rock of Ages is that it asks us to luxuriate in an alternate reality that is built entirely on nostalgia -- it's like A Prairie Home Companion for people who still keep their Styx LPs in the original sleeves. Characters repeatedly break out into well-known songs, but the songs themselves don't belong to the real-life bands that made them famous -- they belong to the fictional people in the movie (and, by extension, to those of us in the audience who came of age in the 1980s and who will, no doubt, be singing along).
The supporting characters are all stock figures, and their artificiality is part of the joke -- a goof on all those '80s-era archetypes that we once took so seriously and that all look so quaint now. Catherine Zeta-Jones turns up (hilariously) as the Tipper Gore-like political wife leading a campaign to shut down the Sunset Strip; Paul Giamatti is the unctuous music manager who is willing to double-cross anyone for a buck; Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are club operators who hope to get out of tax debt by staging a benefit concert headlined by Stacee Jaxx.
Director Shankman is best known for the film version of Hairspray. (The screenplay adaptation is by Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo and Allan Loeb.) Like Shankman's earlier film, the tone here tends to lurch. Sequences, such as when Stacee seduces a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) while singing Foreigner's I Want To Know What Love Is, devolve into graceless camp. The lead performances by Boneta and Hough are so wide-eyed and unironic that they often seem out of place.
Yet when Shankman strikes the right balance -- at once knowing, postmodern and ferociously heartfelt -- the movie soars. Zeta-Jones leads a gaggle of priggish Christian ladies in a song-and-dance set to Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Stripper-pole choreography has never looked so affecting as when it is performed to a plaintively arranged version of Whitesnake's Here I Go Again.
When Baldwin and Brand's characters admit their love for one another, swooningly and ridiculously, all you can think is: I'll never hear REO Speedwagon's Can't Fight This Feeling quite the same way again.
If nothing else, Rock of Ages makes an impassioned case for rock songs of the '80s, in which the inanity of lyrics often seemed in direct disproportion to the primal, exultant power of the music.
Whenever Cruise takes center stage, the movie rattles and hums and enters the stratosphere; you can't take your eyes off him. He struts and sulks, bellows and primps -- it's a performance that seems to encapsulate all the outsized self-regard, the loony contradictions (why did all these supposedly hyper-masculine guys wear eye makeup and leather chaps?) and the tacky pleasures of an entire decade. May he rock all the way to a much-deserved Oscar nomination.
Christopher Kelly is the Star-Telegram film critic, 817-390-7032. Twitter: @ChrisKelly74