Rock Of Ages
The musical Rock of Ages started as a small little goofball of a show that transferred to Broadway and become an overnight sensation. Telling a generic story of trying, then failing, then succeeding in the music biz in Hollywood, the musical is stock-piled with 80’s hair band tunes that are modified, mashed, and sampled to mixed effect. The show was a hit with lovers of the genre, but not well-received by critics.
Now comes the film version - by director/choreographer Adam Shankman whose comedy film credits are banal, but who scored gold with a peppy and fun version of the Broadway phenomenon "Hairspray." Here he attempts to inject that same energy and pop into a musical that was problematic from the start. The result is a mixed bag of over-the-top humor and goofy situations, with an attempt to tell a "touching" story about a boy, a girl, and a dream.
The film opens with a naive gal from Oklahoma named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) breaking out into song ("Sister Christian") aboard a bus headed to Los Angeles; the fact that the rest of the bus joins in with her sets the tone. Or tries to. Soon enough, she is singing her way through the streets of 1987 Hollywood where she gets her "record collection" stolen right in front of the world-famous "Bourbon" rock club. There, she is spotted by barback Drew (Diego Boneta) who is immediately smitten by her down home charm. Knowing she’s in desperate straits, he convinces the owners of the club - Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and Lonny (Russell Brand) - to hire her as a waitress (even though she dreams of being a singer). He agrees as and the makings of a love story begin.
But no love story is complete without conflict. Here there are two. One comes in the form of a philandering Mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral-high ground Tipper Gore-esque wife Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Patricia is on a crusade to clean up the Sunset Strip of its nightclubs and "satanic" music. Her goal is to have The Bourbon torn down so children will be free of the temptations of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
The other point of conflict (kind of) comes in the form of aging rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) who is about to give his final concert before he lets his band go and goes solo. He is a hard-drinking playboy who walks around like a slinkier, dopily introspective version of Axel Rose. His arrival at The Bourbon causes quite a stir and a bit of "Three’s Company" style confusion causes Drew to believe Sherrie has slept with the rock star. A thrown bottle later (bottles are broken a lot, btw), Drew and Sherrie have both quit their jobs and broken up. Dreams have been shattered.
Will they survive Hollywood? Will they realize their mistake and get back together? Will Jaxx clean up his act? These are the (not so) pressing questions in the Shakespeare-inspired plot (not really) that is "Rock of Ages."
To be fair, there is a lot to enjoy here. While some have complained about the Glee-style of the rock songs, that’s pretty much what any jukebox musical is, so you’re either on board or you’re not. And for the most part, that aspect is fairly enjoyable. The musical numbers are fun and goofy with the bigger dance numbers the most giddy fun. Choreographed by Emmy Award winner Mia Michaels ("So You Think You Can Dance"), the dance routines are clever and energetic, if not occasionally reminiscent of simple crowd control. The best moments include Zeta-Jones singing and dancing to Pat Benetar’s "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," Foreigner’s "I Want to Know What Love Is" which pits Malin Akerman’s Rolling Stone reporter in a sexual dalliance with Cruise’s Jaxx, and a mash-up in a strip club mixing Benetar’s "Shadows of the Night" and Quarterflashes "Harden My Heart."
The performances are fairly well cast and they give it their all even when the proceedings get ridiculous. Hough is an entirely likeable screen presence who can project mid-western naivety with a bit of sporty-girl toughness. Akerman plays it just tounge-in-cheek enough that she seems to get the joke more than the others, and Brand and Baldwin make a likeable twosome. Boneta’s Drew is a bit of a bland package. He’s fairly easy on the eyes and has good vocal chops, but he lacks sufficient edge to make his character stand out. And with his character originally the "lead" of the Broadway show, this is kind of weird. Zeta-Jones is a hoot, even when she seems to be over-pronouncing her words in order to hide her accent.
But it is Cruise as Jaxx that will have tongues wagging. Whatever you feel about him personally - and as annoying as his general persona has become - he is wildly amusing here and gives an unexpectedly hilarious performance. As for his singing abilities, I’m still not convinced it was him although we’ll never get anyone to admit it’s not. If it is, it has been so scrubbed by auto-tune it actually comes across as inhuman. These are difficult songs for actual singers to perform, so for Cruise to come out of nowhere with some sort of Rock-God voice we never heard about is suspect. Even so, the sound that comes out of him just sounds odd. It works, don’t get me wrong, but it sounds like it was created in a studio without human involvement.
The other joys of the film are its attempts to mock 80’s music videos and to dive into the cheesiness of the entire setup. Cruise’s first appearance from the bottom of a pig-pile of scantily clad women has him wearing a wolf cod-piece outfit that shows as much skin as black leather. But it’s how he emerges from this pile that is amusing - rising almost preternaturally as if a vampire. This is one of those clever moments that sets the tone as an over-the-top, wink-wink/nudge-nudge treat. Same with Zeta-Jones as she ends her rousing dance in a church. As the music slowly comes to an end, her exit from the church takes just slightly longer than it should as if she’s stalling until the song fades out. It’s funny stuff.
The problem is that the movie betrays that humor with an attempt to drive a serious love story into the frame that ends up being from another movie. It’s as if "Dirty Dancing" were intercut with "Little Shop of Horrors." It just doesn’t flow, which makes the film occasionally screech to a stutter. When it has energy, it is a firehouse. But when it doesn’t, it’s a seat-shifter.
Add in Stacee Jaxx’s annoying manager played by Paul Giamatti and a pet-monkey of Jaxx that seems like a misdirected studio note, and you have a good half hour of secondary stories that could have been cut. The fun is in the music, Cruise’s whack-job performance, and the charm of Hough.
So like its uneven tone, the film becomes patchy. It’s enjoyable for sure, but rather than being a classic like "Grease" (which it seems like it’s trying to emulate), it becomes a hodgepodge of ideas that needed tighter reins in the director’s chair and in the editing suite. I give them credit for taking a pretty bad musical and making it work on film. Mostly.
But Shankman needed to make decisions and fully commit to them. Instead, it seems he was pulled in too many different directions and never settled on the exact movie he wanted to make. You’ll walk out humming the tunes, but just how many times you’d want to revisit it is questionable.