Rock of Ages

15 Jun

There is, in the world of musical theater and movies, a time-honored tradition in which a show is put together entirely with music that’s appeared in other shows. There can be an elaborate new plot (Singin’ in the Rain), a sketchy plot designed to simply bridge the songs (Putting It Together), or no plot at all (which, I guess, would be called a concert). Recently, rather than use songs from other Broadway shows or movie musicals, a new crop of shows has grown, shows which use music which has been popular on the radio rather than on the stage. These shows, referred to as “jukebox musicals”, generally feature music that was popularized by one artist, like Mama Mia (ABBA) or Across the Universe (The Beatles).

Rock of Ages, which was a hit on Broadway and opens as a movie today, is a huge, splashy jukebox musical. It’s a jukebox tucked into the corner of a grungy bar, with a scarred pool table and a bunch of biker dudes you don’t want to mess with. Its playlist comes, from the liner notes of 1980s “Hair Band” albums, though much of the younger audience will know many of the songs from Glee (and good luck convincing them that these guys aren’t stealing from Lea Michelle and company).

The story features Julianne Hough as Sherrie Christian, who leaves Oklahoma City in the first number and takes a bus to Los Angeles, where she’s promptly mugged, then rescued by Drew, an aspiring singer and barback at the legendary Bourbon Lounge, who wrangles Sherrie a job there, just days before the club’s biggest night: legendary rocker Stacee Jaxx is leaving his band Arsenal for a solo career, and has agreed to play the band’s last concert back where it all began — at the Bourbon. Bourbon owner Dennis Dupree and his assistant Lonnie are looking at this gig to save them from financial ruin, but Stacee’s manager Paul has other ideas, as does Los Angeles’ first lady, Patricia Whitmore, who has made the Bourbon the focus of her “clean up the Sunset Strip” campaign.

Taking its cue from its musical heritage, Rock of Ages is not subtle. In fact, it’s as unapologetically brash and in your face as a PG-13 movie can be. More so, in fact, as a number of times my wife leaned over to me and whispered “Are you SURE this is PG-13?”. The performers go about their parts with enthusiasm, if not depth, and Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta show some charm and chemistry as the (rock)star-crossed lovers. Hough remains a bit too spunky throughout, so her descent to rock bottom doesn’t really seem too catastrophic, at least on an emotional level. Boneta is good, and his storyline, with a bit more teeth, could be a trenchant indictment of the role of marketing in music-making. Instead, it is simply an amusing subplot.

The supporting cast does well with the material too: Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand play off one another very well as Dennis and Lonnie, and have one of the most hilarious (if somewhat cringe-inducing) musical numbers since two old fogies duetted to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in Moulin Rouge. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Patty Whitmore is a caricature of the Tipper Gore-style anti-whatever crusader, and Paul Giamatti serves the same function for sleazy agents. Bryan Cranston and Malin Ackermann are virtually wasted as the Mayor and a Rolling Stone reporter sent to cover Jaxx’ transition from lead singer to solo act, though Ackermann is incredibly sexy, and responsible for much of the ratings-pushing in a seduction scene.

In previous reviews, it has been said at times that an actor or actress appears to be in an entirely different movie than those around him or her. Normally, that’s an indication of either a bad ensemble or a bad performance. Here, it is neither. Tom Cruise so fully inhabits Stacee Jaxx that, even as he is the most outlandish character in the movie, he seems the most real. With everyone else functioning at high energy and low depth, Cruise seems at times to be almost comatose, his voice rarely above a whisper, except when he’s singing. Even his posture when he’s on stage –chest out, shoulders back, somewhat stooped– evokes an aging rocker who’s done so many things to his body that it appears ready to revolt. This is probably the least that Tom Cruise has been Tom Cruise since 1999’s Magnolia, and it serves to remind the viewer that when he wants to, when he’s not busy being him, the man can act.

The one thing I was most disappointed in was the choreography. There was too much foot stomping and posing, and not enough dancing. Any movie that takes professional dancer Julianne Hough and gives her moves that primarily involve her either walking down a street or hanging longingly from the nearest banister (or pole) is squandering what could be one of its most valuable assets. Heck, the girl was a pro on Dancing With the Stars. It was her job to make people who couldn’t dance look like they could.

All that said, I can see why a lot of national critics are getting down on Rock of Ages. It’s not deep, it’s not revelatory (except perhaps in Cruise’s performance), and it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Which is why it very well could be the most popular movie in America this weekend.

I give it

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2 Responses to “Rock of Ages”

  1. katie James June 17, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    Nice review Charles!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Goose June 19, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Thanks for the review. Saw the previews and thought to myself, “Great music, but will probably have to skip it” Your review didn’t do much to convince me otherwise. Haven’t cared much for Tom after MI.

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