ROCK OF AGES: Watch It At Home – Stop Believin’
No one expects finesse from a movie musical constructed out of songs by Journey, Twisted Sister and Def Leppard. And, to be certain, the hair-band era of the 80s wasn’t known for its “less is more” aesthetic. But Adam Shankman’s jukebox musical Glee-ish movie of ROCK OF AGES manages to be both bland and a blunt instrument, a poisonous (and I don’t mean the band) mixture.
Rock is set on the EPCOT version of the 1980s Sunset Strip (actually filmed on a fake Miami street), by way of Broadway and Hollywood cliche. The Bourbon (to be confused with Whiskey A Go-Go) is the club where all the bands come to play, and it’s where Boy Ingenue Drew (Diego Boneta), wishing against wish for his big break, works as a bartender. Drew rescues winsome Girl Ingenue Sherrie (Julianne Hough) when she’s robbed the instant she rides the bus into the big city (she’s a small-town girl), and after that, it’s the same boy-meets/loses/gets-girl musical they’ve been making since sound came to the movies, to a soundtrack made up of karaoke versions of ditties like “Paradise City,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and–inevitably–”Don’t Stop Believin.” It’s not clear whether Boneta and Hough have been directed to have no personality whatsoever, or if their own limitations squared up with the filmmakers’, but in any case, there’s never a moment when you want to watch them interact.
Shankman did a serviceable job with the movie of Hairspray, but that came equipped with a strong story and characters, as well as a score that had been written to efficiently develop and move both forward. Rock, built around preexisting songs shoehorned into a loose narrative, needed much more work to become something satisfying on screen, and the script by Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the Broadway show), Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb is just lazy silliness.
What Shankman and the writers provide instead are opportunities for stunt casting, none of them stuntier than the presence of Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, the zombied king of the Strip. If Cruise had been in the movie for 10 minutes, he would have walked away with it, the way he almost did with Tropic Thunder (also co-written by Theroux), because initially, his shtick as a crazily intense, benumbed rock god who travels everywhere with a chimp he calls “Hey, Man” is richly funny. But the filmmakers got greedy, or Cruise wanted more to do, and they made the mistake of trying to make Stacee a real character with his own narrative arc. Not only does this pull focus from what’s supposed to be the main story of the movie, but diminishing returns kick in, because Cruise doesn’t have anything to add to his first impression, and the role just goes on and on.
Some of the other stunt players fare better than others. Even though Alec Baldwin’s voice should never ever be heard in song again, he’s become as reliable a comic actor as we have these days, and he’s wonderfully paired with Russell Brand (who was born for this kind of movie–which is both a compliment and an insult) as the owner and sound man at the Bourbon. Paul Giamatti–also not meant to sing–is likably sleazy as Stacee’s manager. Malin Akerman, as a Rolling Stone writer, does a good job in her big number with Cruise. However, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who really can sing and dance, owes Shankman a slap in the face for turning her into Michelle Pfeiffer in Hairspray, as the Tipper Gore-like Mayor’s wife crusading against the music, except with much less effective material. (It’s anyone’s guess what Bryan Cranston and Will Forte are doing here in non-singing parts.)
Shankman does everything he can to turn Rock of Ages into Hairspray, but 1980s headbanger rock is a completely different milleu from the American Bandstand universe of the early 60s. Scrubbed of all grit, danger and attitude (nobody goes near drugs), the music is just Muzak. Even when Sherrie briefly becomes a stripper (in a club run by Mary J. Blige, looking lost), it feels as though Zeta-Jones’ group has already won, and–to use a Hairspray song title–the bands have become The Nicest Kids in Town.
Shankman also does a terrible job staging the musical numbers, with the kind of choreography you’d expect on a TV singing competition show. The dancing is badly framed, edited without any rhythm at all. Bojan Bazelli’s photography is overlit, and the production design makes no attempt to capture the feeling of real clubs.
Rock of Ages is like a junior high school’s production of Hair, with anything that could be daring or controversial carefully airbrushed out. Except for some of the supporting turns, there’s no reason to see it–fans of the songs are better off watching the old music videos on YouTube.