Rock of Ages (2012) / Musical-Comedy
MPAA rated: PG-13 for sexual content, heavy drinking, some drug content, and language
Running time: 123 min.
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Bryan Cranston, Malin Akerman, Will Forte
Small role: Kevin Nash, Eli Roth, Deborah Gibson, Sebastian Bach
Director: Adam Shankman
Screenplay: Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arenzio, Allan Loeb
Hair bands in the 1980s are the subject matter of this energetic musical, based on the hit Broadway musical by Chris D'Arenzio (who also shares a screenwriting credit for the film), directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman (The Pacifier, Bringing Down the House). It's a routine story of small town girl trying to become a superstar, and a love story with the innocent boy who is the only one not out to use her for his own devices.
The setting is Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 1987, the hotbed of hedonism where a popular night club and concert venue called the Bourbon Room is booming with top-notch acts and it's the place where all up-an-coming rock 'n' rollers want to catch their big breaks. The owner of the tax-troubled club is Dennis Dupree (Baldwin, It's Complicated), who keeps the acts on schedule as best as he can, along with his assistant, Lonny (Brand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). The big show on the agenda is the farewell concert for mega-band, Arsenal, whose lead singer, Stacee Jaxx (Cruise, MI4), is about to embark on a solo career. The main protagonists are Sherrie (Hough, Footloose), a singer who has moved out to Hollywood in search of stardom, and Drew (Boneta, Mean Girls 2), a bartender with aspirations of his own to front a rock band who gets her a waitressing gig at the club. Meanwhile, all is threatened when the Bible-thumping wife of Mayor Whitmore (Cranston, Little Miss Sunshine), Patricia (Zeta-Jones, The Rebound), vows to put an end to the smut, in and Satanism of the music playing nightly at Sunset Strip, especially that of the Bourbon Room now that Stacee Jaxx, who is perpetually checked out these days in a cesspool of booze and babes, is the poster child for all that is wrong in today's youth.
While it extols the virtues of hard rock from the 1980s, Rock of Ages is a pure pop production from its outset, as if the cast of TV's "Glee" had set out to play dress-up and concoct their own big production based on the glam metal and pop styles of the 1980s (Not surprisingly, Shankman directed a couple of episodes of "Glee").. Hough and Boneta themselves look like they walked right out of "High School Musical", so wholesome and without any sort of edge that their only real requirements, other than song and dance, are to look pretty and smile a lot. Their characters are too superficial to hold weight in the middle of a film about 'Satan's Music' and the sex-driven gyrations that drew up protests from religious groups in certain pockets of the country (though the notion that a mayor could get elected and his wife spur on such a moral crusade in heathen-haven Los Angeles is a bit absurd). Cruise walks out to give the film something akin to the right side of 'larger than life' in a semi-mocking portrayal of a burned-out rocker, with Iggy Pop-esque shirtless slithering, showcasing both the attraction and repulsion that such front men exude from nearly everyone they encounter.
Outside of nostalgia and glitz, there's not much else to anchor what ends up being a very thin and poorly developed storyline into something worth following. Remove the songs and there isn't even a movie. Keep the songs, and you have a pretty nice soundtrack sung by some hit-and-miss vocally talented actors. The tone of the film is all over the map, filmed as if there wasn't a clear distinction that the movie is a comedy or a drama in execution. Either way, the film fails as a comedy because it isn't particularly funny, and it fails as a drama because none of the stories emerge from the surface level pleasures to be truly poignant. The story tries to tie in the sleaze ball antics of the talent management of Paul Giamatti (The Ides of March, Win Win) in trying to make money and fame happen for his clients, which is really all they want, and yet they act as if their 'art' is being slighted by doing what is necessary to reach for the top of the pop charts.
The film posits that boy bands and bubblegum pop are what threatened to take youth away from the hard rock genre, when perhaps the biggest band of its era, Guns N Roses, would have a pretty good career after the setting of this film. Never mind that the Grunge genre would be what really would turn the ears of rock-loving youths away from the likes of glossy, glam metal acts like Poison and Motley Crue. One of the key problems is that much of the music is more pop than rock, despite the 'metal' tag that are on some of the bands. And others, like Pat Benatar and Journey, are not true Hard Rockers at all. It's all power ballads and rock anthems designed for mass consumption, which flies in the face of the film's sole message of anti-commercialism and not wanting artists to sell out their sound. That sound was sold out long before 1987.
Perhaps in the realm of a stage musical, with all of the live dancing, loud music, and kitschy pageantry that becomes the height of escapist entertainment for many looking to be dazzled, such a concert theatrical event should win over the people dancing and singing in their sears. The movies are a different venue, where we watch characters spout dialogue as if it is supposed to mean something, and when they sing, it's every bit as exciting as watching a music video, while you can't do much but sit quietly in the theater at each passing montage sequence. If you love the music, and want to hear second-raters fake play and sing your favorite tunes, I'd bet you'd have more fun, and more lasting memories, getting your friends or family together for a couple of hours of 'Guitar Hero' instead of this very un-hip attempt at saturated nostalgia.
©2012 Vince Leo