I’d like to begin this review with full disclosure that I requested to cover this movie because I was genuinely looking forward to it. And not to snark on it and put it down, which leading up to the release seemed to be the popular thing to do from two sides: People that think 80’s power ballads are the epitome of garbage music (have you listened to the Top 40 lately?) and on the other end of the spectrum, fans of the genre that take things way too seriously and are angry about a fun movie musical having the nerve to poke fun at hair metal.
Both sides are wrong of course. Because, 1) A lot of really great music came out of the 80’s including many of the songs in this film and B) It was over-the-top and cheesy. It was fun. There’s nothing wrong with that.
So elitists on both sides can suck it. I’m a child of the 80’s, I love this shit.
Rock of Ages is the movie adaptation of the Broadway hit of the same name. It’s what is referred to as a “jukebox musical” meaning the score is composed of existing popular songs rather than original music written for the production. Directed by Adam Shankman (2007’s Hairspray) with a screenplay by Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man) and Chris D’Arienzo (writer of the book and stage show on which the film is based), fans of the Broadway show will notice many changes and omissions to the plot. Anyone who’s curious can read the original synopsis here.
The year is 1987. Sherrie (Julianne Hough) is a starry-eyed small town girl who did her hair and looks real pretty. She’s on a bus to LA to win big and chase her dreams of becoming a singer. Upon arrival, she is immediately robbed, which tends to happen to small town girls that move to the city to chase their dreams (Showgirls, Burlesque, Coyote Ugly). You’d think Sherrie would know the city can be a dangerous place since her suitcase contains only rock albums and both Poison and Guns N’ Roses have cautionary songs about this very thing, but Sherrie is adorably naive. To her rescue comes a city boy named Drew (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the most famous rock club in town, The Bourbon Room. Of course, they instantly fall in love.
The Bourbon Room is run by owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his loyal assistant Lonny (Russell Brand). Despite being a legendary venue, the club is in some financial trouble. Dennis hopes this dilemma will be solved by the upcoming appearance by the biggest band in the world, Arsenal. See it’s Arsenal’s last concert before their eccentric lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) goes solo. But back taxes are not the club’s only problem. In addition, the mayor’s wife,
Tipper Gore Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has taken on a personal mission to clean up the Sunset Strip, obsessively focusing on The Bourbon Room itself.
I know the first thing you’re wondering about so let’s just get it out of the way:
I was lying a little bit before when I said I didn’t want to see this movie to snark on it. There was one thing. And I had a full arsenal (sorry) of material ready to lay into Cruise’s performance as a strutting, tatted-up, sex-oozing rock god. But I can’t use it. The guy’s a hell of an actor and he pulled it off. He’s a decent singer too. I can’t believe I am typing this. Cruise never fully disappears into the role—you’re constantly aware that you are watching Tom Cruise—but the same can be said for all of the actors in the film so I can’t fault him for that either. He easily runs away with many of the best moments of the movie. There I said it.
Along with Cruise, the rest of the A-listers playing 80’s costume party are well-cast and succeed in their roles, notably Catherine Zeta-Jones, who hasn’t lost a step since Chicago, the always-reliable Alec Baldwin, sexy/funny perfection Malin Akerman (as Rolling Stone reporter, Constance Sack), and Paul Giamatti at his Pig Vomit sleaziest as Stacee Jaxx’s manager. Even Russell Brand, whose schtick can get tiring after awhile, fits in nicely. Mary J. Blige comes in late in the film as kind of a fairy godmother/strip club madam/black person and does what she can with an underdeveloped character. As for the members of the cast too young to have experienced the music the first time around, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta both do just fine and are ridiculously cute. Hough’s singing voice reminded me a lot of early Madonna (once infamously described as “Minnie Mouse on helium.”). I’m not sure if that was intentional, but it worked because 80’s.
There are a also few fun cameos from everyone from Constantine Maroulis, who originated the role of Drew on Broadway, to wrestler Kevin Nash (as Cruise’s bodyguard), to a random assortment of musicians popular in the 80’s (pay attention to the background of the “We’re Not Gonna Take It”/”We Built This City” protest scene ).
- a fun and successful nostalgic musical as base material.
- a talented, willing to swing for the fences cast.
- a $70,000,000 budget.
What can possibly go wrong?
A hell of a lot.
What’s the one thing you want from a musical? I’ll answer that. Memorable performances. Quick, think of “Time Warp”, think of “We Both Reached for the Gun”, think of “My Favorite Things.” Can you see the pictures in your head immediately? Do you see transvestites? Renee Zellweger, the squinty-eyed dummy? Julie Andrews ripping down the drapes? My point is, these are visuals that are embedded in our minds along with the music. After watching Rock of Ages, I tried to recall as many of these kind of moments as possible. I came up with three: Catherine Zeta-Jones’ hilariously aggressive (in a terrible boxy suit-dress) “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Tom Cruise’s (fuck) showstopping “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and “I Want Know What Love Is,” a duet between a comically shameless Cruise and Ackerman (note: I’m still trying to figure out if the characters were actually supposed to have had sex in that scene). All of these were extremely well-done and my personal highlights.
Now three isn’t so bad, right? However this film is two hours long and contains approximately 452 songs, give or take. Shankman seemed very concerned with cramming in every single song (except, inexplicably, “Oh Sherrie”) available, and the result is a spastic, frenzied, quick-cutted, mashed-up mess. As soon as I started getting into one song, it quickly segued into another. The same goes for the visual, aside from the above three scenes I mentioned, the camera never stays still long enough to be able to fully appreciate the fact that they have acclaimed choreographer Mia Michaels and extremely talented dancers like Julianne Hough involved. And Shankman’s a choreographer himself, you’d think he’d want to showcase the dancing a little more.
“Don’t worry about the dancing, you’ll only be shown for two seconds at a time.”
Another problem: many of the songs start abruptly with no lead-up. It’s jolting and doesn’t flow, more like “okay, time for the next track on the Time Life 80’s Collection. What song is kind of related to what these characters are talking about?” This issue tends to affect movie adaptations of stage productions often, but there are ways around it with a little effort.
There are instances in the film in which the original recorded songs of the era (a couple post-1987, but I’m a nitpicker) play in the background. I’m guessing they weren’t intended to be a welcome distraction, but that is exactly how they came off juxtaposed alongside the over-produced, sugary, Glee-esque versions. (I don’t mean this as a diss to the cast, who were competent enough vocally.) The songs are washed, bleached, and sprayed with glitter with any spec of grit, grime, and Aqua Net buildup scrubbed squeaky clean. It should come as no surprise that Glee’s “Rocky Horror” episode was also directed by Shankman.
Even Stamos couldn’t save that one.
Before the film started there was a trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming The Great Gatsby so that already put him in the back of my head. He came into the foreground during many scenes in Rock of Ages, when I recalled how brilliantly he incorporated popular hits into Moulin Rouge and gave the songs a second life within the film rather than just coming off as inferior karaoke knockoffs. It made me wonder how Rock of Ages would have turned out in his hands.
Also given the post-Glee bath: everything about the 80’s. Yeah, characters drink and have sex, and tongues are wagging all over the place, and people are yelling “ROCK AND ROLL.” But it never feels or looks like anything more than celebrities playing dress-up. Speaking of, the costumes look like the “Totally 80’s Guy/Girl” from those pop-up Halloween stores. I even spotted Julianne Hough wearing an ironic retro Cinderella shirt from Walmart (I know this because I have the same shirt. And I bought it at Walmart. A couple years ago.) Was the costume designer even alive in the 80’s? And what is with Hollywood’s fear of giving leading ladies in 80’s movies era-appropriate hair and makeup? Drew Barrymore in The Wedding Singer, Jennifer Aniston in Rock Star, now Hough. She’s shown teasing and spraying in one shot, but has perfect circa-2012 beachy waves for nearly the whole movie. It takes her working at a strip club to finally get some sorta 80’s hair. I guess only supporting actresses and strippers have terrible 80’s hair in movies. That must be the rule.
It’s PG-13, so while Rock of Ages gets away with gratuitous close-up shots of Tom Cruise thrusting his “baby”maker (that was one from my arsenal), a same-sex kiss (done for comedic effect, of course) and a few bare asses, it’s pretty mild for a spoof of 80’s excess and sleaze. There’s no real dirt along the lines of stuff you may have read about in The Dirt (is that movie ever coming out?) There are no references to any drugs other than alcohol, in fact, I could be wrong but I don’t think I remember seeing anyone even smoke a cigarette (which was legal in clubs in Los Angeles at the time). A lapdance between Hough and Cruise was cut (to make her character more likable), along with I’m sure a lot of other vulgarly funny scenes from the musical.
I really wanted to love this but I left the theater feeling let down rather than pumping devil horns in the air. There are a few chuckles and standout moments, but as a whole, Rock of Ages misses the mark. It’s hard to tell what kind of movie Adam Shankman was trying to make as it never seems to fully commit to parody or full-on camp. I’m sure his heart was in the right place, but it just didn’t rock. In a nutshell, it’s basically Glee does the 80’s, with extra sugar poured on top.
I heard the Broadway show is a hell of a lot of fun though. They even serve tequila shots to the audience
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a character quotes a song lyric.
Take a Drink: every time the Hollywood sign is shown. (Note: it is impossible to take a taxi to the Hollywood sign)
Take a Drink: at every close-up of Tom Cruise’s crotch.
Take a Drink: for every groupie Stacee Jaxx makes out with.
Take a Drink: every time someone sticks out and wags their tongue. (Small sips, this happens a LOT.)
Take a Drink: every time you wish you were listening to the original version of a song instead
Take a Drink: when you spot the Slayer poster at Tower Records.
Take a Shot: every time you admit to someone that Tom Cruise made a believable rock star.
Last Call: None. (not that anyone was yelling “encore!”) But you can hear Tom Cruise’s version of “Paradise City” in its entirety. (Yeah, you’re probably better off leaving.)