Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rock of Ages: A Review


All this time I had been led to believe that 80s rock music in the manner of Journey and Foreigner (sorry, I really wouldn't know the difference), Def Leppard (not to be confused with Led Zeppelin, although maybe we'll see them get a Kennedy Center Honor), Twisted Sister and Whitesnake was all terrible.  I suppose nostalgia will eventually make what was once thought uncool, even stupid, seem 'authentic', even great.  I keep thinking that the people who made Rock of Ages a Broadway hit were either those who remember the music and still have a fondness for what their peers dismissed (when either New Wave or Alternative music like The Smiths/Morrissey or R.E.M. was the 'real' music) or those far too young to actually remember with what contempt 'hair metal' was held. 

In any case, I never saw Rock of Ages on the stage so I can't say how close or far the film version strayed from its roots.  However, given the film version, I can't help think the actual stage show managed to integrate the songs better into the story and gave the story more structure than what we end up with.  This isn't to say Rock of Ages is horrible.  It's just that it barrels through its story and characters that it seems more interested in showcasing its catalogue than in telling a story where the songs express something.

Young Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) comes to Los Angeles to pursue a career in singing.  In VERY short order she gets robs and manages to get a job as a waitress at the Bourbon Room (a Whiskey A'Go Go-type bar).  She is helped in all this by barman Drew (Diego Boneta).  Our duo are obviously attracted to each other, and their romance is helped that both love to rock!

Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his toadie Lonny (Russell Brand) are facing financial ruin, but hope comes in the form of the final concert of the rock band Arsenal, fronted by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who can best be described as debauched.  Actually, debauched might be too mild a word for Stacee: he looks like he's just crazy and out-of-it.  Still, he's very popular, except to one person.

That would be Los Angeles First Lady Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is a parody of a parody of Dana Carvey's Church Lady.  She wants the Bourbon Room shut down to prevent Jaxx in particular from spreading "sex, hateful music,".   She is aided by her weak-willed husband, Mike (Bryan Cranston, bringing back his Hal from Malcolm in the Middle). 

Jaxx is desolute, with only Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) reaching into his soul, having him Want to Know What Love Is.    A misunderstanding has Drew believe Sherrie had a fling with the charismatic Jaxx, and he dumps her but goes with Jaxx's manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti). 

Sherrie Hardens Her Heart and ends up as a stripper, while Drew finds that rather than having a Rock & Roll Fantasy (not in the fiml, but I thought I'd throw it in there), he now is in the worst thing in the world: A BOY BAND, the Z-Guyeezz (double the E, double the Z, double the flava).  Eventually, Sherrie and Drew do reunite, Lonny and Dennis both save the Bourbon and admit they Can't Fight This Feeling, and we see why Patricia is so anti-Jaxx (who himself finds true love).

As If We Didn't Know Any of That Would Happen.

Any film based around rock songs of the 80s which has a character named Sherrie but DOESN'T use Steve Perry's Oh, Sherry is already a failure in my book.  I believe the stage show DOES indeed make use of this fortuitous name but for some reason Rock of Ages' director, Adam Shankman, along with screenwriters Allan Loeb, Chris D'Arienzo (adapting his stage show), and Justin Theroux opted to not only NOT have Oh Sherry but also alter the songs and structure of the original.

I suppose that's par for the course: few musical adaptations come to the screen fully intact.  I couldn't tell you where Rock of Ages the show deviates from Rock of Ages the film.  My big problem with the product we end up having is that the actual story (the love story between Drew and Sherrie) gets short-changed in the rush to throw in as many songs as possible, sometimes with not much sense.

Oh Sherry had to be sacrificed for More Than Words?  Even when the latter song was first released both casual listeners and Extreme fans revolted at what was (and I'd say still is) considered a remarkably cheesy, syrupy song.  I didn't hate it when it first came out, but when one was bombarded with it at the 20,000th time then it becomes something one wishes would disappear into the void. 

The storyline is shockingly predictable (who here didn't already know why Patricia had a fixation with Jaxx?) but rather than try to put some context into WHY these chruch ladies were so up in arms about music, Shankman and Company opted to go the safe route.  It is much easier to make these 'Christians' (and given Mayor Whitmore's secretary/mistress uses a rosary as a whipping device, I'd argue they are more Catholic than evangelicals) look like crazies than make them a serious threat. 

This decision to overdo the 'Christians are Crazy' card allowed Zeta-Jones to go so over-the-top it went past offensive to Christians in general to being downright defamatory.  One wonders whether Zeta-Jones has ever actually SET FOOT in a church given how broad her interpretation is.

Of course, in terms of performance, she was not alone in the bad department.  Despite all the progress gays have made in society, there is still something really strange, even nutty, at seeing Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin sing a love song to each other.  I'd go on to say that Cant' Fight This Feeling is taken way out of context here.  Not since the Seattle Seahawks ran onto the field at Super Bowl XL to The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony has a song been so wrong, so wildly miscalculated to set the mood. 

When I heard Bittersweet Symphony play for the Seahawks' entrance, I knew they had already lost the game.  When I saw Baldwin and Brand sing a notorious ballad to each other, I knew Rock of Ages had gone off the deep end.  Let's put this in context: there's never been any indication that Lonny or Dupree (what, no Me, You, and Dupree?) were gay, let alone in love with each other.  It comes out of nowhere, as does MISS Mary J. Blige as the Venus Gentleman's Club owner Justice.

How exactly she relates to the overall story we know not, but she still is a welcome presence.

Of course, Rock of Ages does have some wonderful things in it.  Hough and Boneta work well together and sing well, so hopefully this film will serve as a calling card to their future.  They gave a performance as good as their material allowed them to make. 

The big revelation is how good Tom Cruise is.  He fully commits to the oddball Stacee Jaxx, and his singing voice is simply incredible.  It's obvious that Cruise has been dying for a chance to show his theatrical skills, and Rock of Ages allowed him to belt out to his heart's content. 

Still, even the vocal talents of Cruise (which until now have been unknown), along with nice turns by Hough and Boneta aren't enough to lift Rock of Ages from being more a collection of 80s rock hits than a film where the songs appear to belong within the story.  It is a great soundtrack, but it does seem like a wasted opportunity to bring our rock on.

People may have a good time if they just watch Rock of Ages to listen to the songs (though there are too many mash-ups that don't always work).  If you think you're going to either a great film or solid adaptation of the musical, You've Got Another Thing Comin'.         

Rock on, Tom...


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