Rock of Ages: Nothin' But a Mild Time

A musical scored to the head-banging, power-chord wailing hair rock tunes of the '70s and '80s may sound like the final nail in the coffin of Western civilization, but from most eyewitness accounts, the Broadway musical Rock of Ages is a silly, enjoyable lark -- a show that has a lot of love for its specific brand of rock 'n' roll but doesn't take it particularly seriously. It's easy to see how this material would play well onstage, where the audience can feed off the energy of the performers and unapologetically rock out to these cheesy classics like they're in an actual nightclub as opposed to a theater. But I'm sorry to report that the new movie version of Rock of Ages has all the energy and electricity of a lite-FM radio station's noontime "Smooth Jazz" hour. With the exception of a few musical numbers, the film curiously finds little joy in songs that are nothing if not pleasures to listen to. Guilty pleasures to be sure, but pleasures all the same.

The movie's labored song-and-dance routines are particularly surprising since they were overseen by Adam Shankman, an experienced choreographer and the director of the surprisingly great Hairspray movie musical that came out a few years back. (Granted, Shankman's credits also include less distinguished fare like Bringing Down the House and A Walk to Remember, but Hairspray suggested that Broadway was the right milieu for him.) The key difference between the two movies is that the musical sequences in Hairspray were given space to breathe. Rock of Ages, on the other hand, rushes through its lengthy set list -- which includes such '80s rock staples as "Paradise City," "We're Not Gonna Take It" and, of course, "Don't Sop Believin'" -- so quickly that we only hear snippets of songs (the longest numbers last between three to four minutes, the majority are cut off around the two-minute mark) and that relentless speed brings to mind an episode of Glee rather than a classic big-screen musical like, say, West Side Story. It would be one thing if Shankman were rushing through the music to get back to a compelling story, but the plot of Rock of Ages is perhaps best described as non-existent. While story points are introduced, few are followed up on in a convincing or even interesting way. What we're left with is a collection of mostly listless renditions of much-loved songs occasionally punctuated by boring dialogue exchanges. Woo hoo! Are we having fun yet?

In the jukebox musical spirit, I'm going to score the rest of this review to an alternate track list of songs from roughly the same era -- though not necessarily in the same style. So grab your mix tapes, dig your Walkman out of storage and sing along.

"The Club at the End of the Street" by Elton John
Much of the action in Rock of Ages takes place in L.A.'s Bourbon Room, a fictional version of the numerous seedy clubs that dotted the Sunset Strip in the '80s. Owned and operated by money-minded industry veteran Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his scuzzy Brit sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand), the Bourbon Room is a flashpoint in the worsening relations between the Strip's businessmen and the city government represented by Mayor Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his militant conservative wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Facing foreclosure due to unpaid taxes, Dennis hopes to earn enough from an upcoming show headlined by the hair band Arsenal -- whose sex god frontman Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is about to go solo -- that he can balance the books and keep the doors open. Survivors of the '80s Strip scene will probably appreciate the obvious care with which the movie's production design team has attempted to recreate those clubs, although this one is almost certainly cleaner and more spacious than the actual thing. Still, the Bourbon Room does fittingly become a character in the movie... one that's considerably more interesting than most of the flesh and blood folks walking through it.

"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" by Michael Jackson
If there was still any doubt after last year's Footloose remake, Rock of Ages confirms that Julianne Hough is a very, very pretty woman. The one-time Dancing with the Stars hoofer plays Sherrie Christian, a small town girls who takes the midnight train bus to Hollywood in the hopes of launching her singing career. Wandering along the Strip, she meets equally pretty city boy Drew Boley (Diego Boneta, of Pretty Little Liars fame), another aspiring singer that's currently stocking shelves and taking out the trash at the Bourbon Room. Instantly smitten, he hooks her up with a job and scores a date, which blossoms into romance. With their blinding-white smiles and perfectly coiffed hair, Boley and Hough make an undeniably attractive couple. They also happen to be blander than the whitest of white bread. Even when their love affair inevitably turns sour -- due to his rising star and one major misunderstanding -- neither of them is capable of convincingly registering an emotion deeper than placid detachment. And let's not even start on their too-tame voices, which do a disservice to the songs that are meant to be sung with feeling. Listening to Hough croon "More Than Words" in a breathy, Auto-Tuned whisper is the aural equivalent of airbrushing.

"My Michelle" by Guns N' Roses
Speaking of airbrushing, Rock of Ages deliberately and quite conveniently leaves out one of the defining elements of life on the Strip during the '80s: cocaine. Alcohol is in there in abundance (although, interestingly, only a handful of characters actually happen to imbibe) but that white powder is entirely absent. While it's understandable that Shankman would want to avoid bumming the audience out with overt scenes of drug abuse, the lack of any reference to cocaine or other hard drugs just seems like willful denial. It should have at least been mentioned in the case of the hard-living Stacee, while Sherrie's own journey to the bottom -- on which her last stop is a job as an exotic dancer in a strip joint run by Mary J. Blige of all people -- would undoubtedly have taken her past snorting and shooting up. But that's par for the course in a movie that makes some substantial changes both to reality and its own source material in order clean up its act. In one of the biggest departures from the play, Sherrie no longer has a fling with Stacee in the Bourbon Room bathroom, thus precipitating her split from Drew. Instead, she just has a brief interaction with him backstage, which her boyfriend oversees and mistakenly interprets as a post-coital chat. It's a craven attempt to keep Sherrie "pure" so that the audience doesn't turn against her. But since theatergoers haven't seemed to mind during the show's three-years-and-counting Broadway run, it's hard to understand why this change -- which only serves to further rob Sherrie of any dimension -- was necessary.

"Staying Power" by Queen
Much of the curiosity surrounding Rock of Ages has to do with the notion of Tom Cruise playing a Bret Michaels-meets-Axl Rose rock hedonist. And Cruise admirably attacks the role with his usual ferocious intensity. Our first glimpse of Stacee involves him rising up from beneath a pile of naked groupies lounging on a bed, shirtless and wearing a large bejeweled crotch piece. He only gets more flamboyant from there, greeting women by fondling their breasts and treating his musical numbers like workout routines. (The bicep action going on during Cruise's impressive rendition of "Wanted Dead or Alive" would put Dwayne Johnson to shame.) Unfortunately, Shankman and his writing team commit the costly mistake of wanting to humanize this cartoon, so midway through, the script pivots and tries to find the tragedy in Stacee's hard-living lifestyle. It's a profoundly unconvincing shift that may give Cruise a greater range of emotions to play, but in the process it takes a lot of fun out of his performance.

"Wise Up" by Aimee Mann
Okay, so this Aimee Mann tune debuted long after the hair rock era ended. Doesn't matter: I defy anyone to watch the scene where Stacee is interviewed by Rolling Stone writer Constance Sack and not immediately flash to a similar scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia where Frank T.J. Mackey is subjected to a similar interrogation by a probing journalist. Constance didn't exist in the stage production and seems to have been dropped in the movie solely to give Stacee a woman to sleep with who isn't Sherrie. That may explain why the character's behavior and actions make absolutely no sense, although the likable Malin Akerman gamely tries to make Constance relevant to the proceedings. However, it's also her withering article about Stacee that sets off his humor-killing bout of soul-searching and I simply can't find it in my heart to forgive her for that.

"Sex Farm" by Spinal Tap
Stacee and Sherrie may not get it on as they do in the stage show, but there's plenty of flesh -- both of the male and female variety -- and bumping and grinding on display throughout Rock of Ages. Start with Cruise, who struts around with his rock-hard abs for the duration of the movie. His sex scene/dance number with Akerman, cheekily scored to "I Want to Know Love Is," is one of the movie's few high points, with the two actors comically groping and gyrating on a pool table. Hough's cleavage is given a real workout as well, to the point where her bras should be up for "Best Supporting Actress" consideration. Those looking for less heteronormitave pairings will be disappointed to hear that the movie's sole gay couple -- Dennis and Lonny, who announce their love to the tune of "Can't Fight This Feeling" -- only get to exchange a single kiss. On the other hand, given what an unattractive couple Baldwin and Brand make, perhaps it's just as well that they stopped there.

"Hangin' Tough" by New Kids on the Block
For the most part, Drew is a non-entity as a character, but he does briefly justify his existence towards the end of the film when Shankman uses him as a human prop to poke fun at the boy band explosion that followed and eventually supplanted hard hair rock in the late '80s. After signing with an unscrupulous producer (a wasted Paul Giamatti) -- the same one who manages Drew's nemesis Stacee -- the wannabe rocker is forced to remake his image, donning the hyper-colored wardrobe and ridiculous hairstyle of a New Kid on the Block. When Drew 2.0 appears onscreen for the first time, he resembles a vintage 1989 Teen Beat centerfold brought to horrible, unnatural life.

"Let's Dance" by David Bowie
From the curtain-raising opening tune "Good Morning Baltimore" to the big closing number "You Can't Stop the Beat," Shankman's movie version of Hairspray had the showmanship and razzle-dazzle dancing of a great Broadway show. Rock of Ages, in contrast, only has a handful of numbers that feature any actual choreography, the best of which is a church-set scene where Zeta-Jones leads her goon squad of straight-laced biddies in a rendition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." Otherwise, the cast primarily stands planted in place singing along to previously recorded tracks while the camera spins around them. Sure, one could make the case that rock songs don't necessarily lend themselves to elaborately choreographed dance numbers, but then Shankman and his team should have come up with a way to make the musical performances more than just mediocre to slightly above average karaoke covers. Here's a thought: instead of throwing money away on Rock of Ages, just create an '80s-themed playlist with all the original versions of these songs. That way you'll be guaranteed of getting all of the rock with none of the dead air.

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