The title of Adam Shankman’s new musical may be something of a misnomer if you were born in the 1970s and grew up with the thoroughly disreputable music of the subsequent decade – for the songs featured here aren’t rock for the ages so much as the rock of our ages. The film opens in 1987, as the soundtrack explodes with Paradise City, and a shiver ran up my spine. And that’s what kept happening with every chartbuster belted out during the next couple of hours – at some point I began to feel as if I were plugged into a socket. Rock of Ages isn’t a film you see for its plot or its performances (though many of the actors do manage an effective moment or two). You see it to travel back in time to an era when music came in cassettes, and when pop and rock had coalesced to create a bastard hybrid with the instant hummability of the former and the hard-banging vitality of the latter. Rock of Ages is less a movie than a nostalgia concert tour, a guilt-free shrine to gimcrackery.
The story opens, as these stories always to, with a star-struck ingénue (Sherrie, played by Julianne Hough) leaving small-town Oklahoma for Hollywood. Alighting from the Greyhound, as these ingénues always do, she exults (in the immortal words of David Lee Roth), “This must be just like livin’ in paradise.” Instantly, her suitcase is stolen. Luckily, she runs into Drew (Diego Boneta) – he’s so smitten that he gets her a job at the nightclub he works at and, later, asks her out on a date. (The occasion calls for a song, and what better number could express his emotions than Foreigner’s Waiting For A Girl Like You?) Meanwhile, the Mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is on a mission to clean up the city by banning rock ‘n’ roll – she seems to have been possessed by the spirit of John Lithgow in Footloose, that other curmudgeon from the 1980s who strove to outlaw music and dance. And first on her hit list is the aging rocker named Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).
Rock of Ages weaves in and out of these storylines at will, entrusting all character development to the songs. How do we know Stacee Jaxx, beneath his bacchanalian exterior, yearns for nothing more than someone to fill the empty spaces in his heart? Because he breaks into Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is. How do we know that a price has to be paid for fame, for finally getting what you always dreamed about? Because of Poison’s wistful Every Rose Has Its Thorn. (The not insignificant question of how this film will play to anyone who doesn’t know these numbers and has little affection for Pour Some Sugar On Me will have to be answered by someone else, I’m afraid.) Mamma Mia! came laden with similar issues, but we didn’t bother that its characters were lightweight because the story was itself fluff, just a concatenation of mini-romances that crowded out the merest semblance of angst. But here, when Shankman tries to pull off a mournful roundelay between several characters, like what Paul Thomas Anderson did in Magnolia, the sadness in the song doesn’t seep into the characters who sing it.
For a musical, the staging is shockingly flat, devoid of atmosphere. (The nightclub owner played by Alec Baldwin, a paunchy hippie with a predilection for leopard-print shirts, warns before a performance, “This place is about to become a sea of sweat, ear-shattering music and puke,” but we could be seeing a glossy Broadway production.) A bigger problem is that Shankman seems to think he’s making a musical comedy – his staging veers incessantly towards shtick. When the Mayor’s wife – in church, and with Stacee Jaxx’s poster on the altar – issues a challenge to her nemesis through Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot, her husband (Bryan Cranston) inside is being slapped on the bottom by his mistress. (He is, in other words, asking to be hit with her best shot.) The most unforgivable coarsening of a musical montage may be the one where Baldwin and Russell Brand express their love for each other through Can’t Fight This Feeling. The emotion in the REO Speedwagon song is undermined by the easy laughs Shankman reaches for. Someone should have told him that no less a talent than Noël Coward marvelled, in one of his plays, about the extraordinary potency of “cheap music.”
But the actors sweat with mighty conviction, as if they were putting on a Stephen Sondheim show – they do their best to conquer this cheesy material. Cruise, especially, is astonishing in a scene where his tired, dissipated rocker is interviewed by a Rolling Stone journalist (Malin Åkerman) who asks him what it’s like to be the real Stacee Jaxx – his fuzzy, weirded-out reaction suggests that he’s been asked what it’s like to be the real Tom Cruise. (When she accuses him of being a “man child stuck in a rut,” she could be talking about the Peter Pan star who made Knight and Day.) It’s one of those rare moments in the movies where you’re not sure where the character ends and where the actor begins. By way of a reply, he launches into Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive – he sings the song as if it were a soul-lacerating confession. The actors do what Shankman won’t. They treat the music seriously, as seriously as we did all those years ago. They manufacture a bit of truth from the bumper-sticker philosophy in the Journey anthem that closes the film: Don’t Stop Believin’.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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