Synopsis: A small town girl and a city boy meet on the Sunset Strip, while pursuing their Hollywood dreams.
Stars: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Malin Akerman, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige
Director: Adam Shankman
Running Length: 123 minutes
Random Crew Highlight: Hey Man the Monkey ~ Mickey
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: We are, by nature, a visual society. In movies, we tend respond to images on the screen that move us to a certain feeling and at times can let that form our opinion of the movie we’re watching. While watching Rock of Ages, the big screen adaptation of an overnight Broadway sensation, I started to feel a little grumpy with what I was seeing. So I closed my eyes and suddenly I was I in a happier spot. On the scale of screen musicals this is absolutely no Xanadu but neither is it Chicago (or Hairspray, director Shankman’s previous effort). It’s a decidedly middle of the road affair that has the rare distinction at being more enjoyable to listen to than see…much like Glee.
Directing 2007’s Hairspray, Shankman effectively brought the characters to silver screen life while not rendering the stage version obsolete. I think that what Hairspray had going for it was a terrific package already in place, making it a hard product to screw up. With its rough edges and more adult slanting plot the Rock of Ages filmmakers faced a dilemma…do they move the Broadway show directly to film or do they fiddle with the established script to lure more stars to the project. I’ll give you one guess what route was taken and now I’ll tell you why it was a mistake.
Moving from a sold-out run Off Broadway, the Rock of Ages that still plays on the Great White Way and on tour never felt that stage bound to me. It had some rawness to it that, coupled with a smart set list and steel voiced performers, was nothing but a good time at the theater. Audiences were encouraged to drink up and enjoy themselves which made for a memorable evening.
The film version retains many of the characters from the stage show but jettisons the plot for something that just doesn’t measure up. Now instead of two lead characters and a motley bunch of supporting players you have A-list talent all jockeying for screen time and the result is an unexpectedly messy movie. Running a long two hours so much is shoehorned in that the film can’t possibly serve all of its stars well.
Or can it?
While I try to save the best for last I need to temper my previous paragraphs of grumpy gripes with a few lines of Hallelujah praise for the megawatt star that I originally thought would be the performance everyone would be laughing at. How wrong The MN Movie Man was. Yes, it’s true. Cruise is hands down the reason to see the movie. He not only walks away with the movie, he does so while singing quite well. It’s one of the most committed and vivid performances onscreen so far in 2012 and here’s hoping he’s remembered come awards season. He’s that good. What could have been a vanity role has been given flesh, blood, and a rockers scream (even if it was sweetened with Autotune as nearly everyone is in the movie) by Mr. Cruise and he deserves major kudos for setting the bar so very high. Every song he’s a part of and scene he’s in is memorable – so much so that when he’s not onscreen you feel the absence.
Cruise excels at these roles where a certain amount of self reflection is required. Like his performance in Tropic Thunder, this is a Cruise that is game for anything. That one of the screenwriters (Justin Therox) also wrote Tropic Thunder can’t be a coincidence. His performance of “Wanted, Dead or Alive” builds to a fever crescendo and he follows it up immediately with “I Want to Know What Love Is”, a duet with the equally game Akerman who was another stand out for me. So far in career she hasn’t been called to do more than look pretty and take her top off but it’s clear she knows her comedy. While some could look at her performance as being too easy she has genuine chemistry with Cruise in a newly created role of a Rolling Stone reporter.
Going down the line of performers proves to be a law of diminishing returns. While no one in the film sounds bad it’s the characters they create that may leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Zeta-Jones is a proven musical star and her “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is sung full voiced and danced to perfection. At least, I’m assuming its perfection. Mia Michaels choreography has been sliced to pieces by a vigorous editor and it doesn’t help that for some reason Zeta-Jones’ big number is shown in tandem with a raunchy dalliance between her mayoral candidate husband and his aide. The husband is played by Bryan Cranston in one of the bigger ‘I’m doing it just for the money’ performances I’ve seen in some time.
Boneta and Hough are supposedly the main characters in Rock of Ages, much like they are on Broadway. With the star power surrounding them, the poor youngsters get lost pretty quickly…and it doesn’t help that both of their roles have been sanitized in the transition to screen. Hough, in particular, suffers the worst cuts. Sherrie onstage is a fresh off the bus innocent that gets sucked into the LA lifestyle. Sherrie onscreen is a rube that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time which causes trouble for her budding romance with Boneta’s Drew.
As good as Blige looks and sings, her acting is pretty laughable. Here the star with the best voice is actually the worst actor which goes to show you how difficult the transition from singer to star can be. Rounding out our cast are Brand and Baldwin (the weakest singer even with electronic assistance) in totally forgettable roles that were so amusing onstage. A late in the mix revelation between the two men seems to have come from another film set entirely.
Special mention also needs to go to Mickey the baboon. If it’s true that Cruise specifically suggested the monkey be added to the film then Cruise is officially the smartest man in the room. Giamatti should be pretty upset that he’s out acted in not one, not two, but THREE scenes by Mickey.
One thing Rock of Ages loves is a montage. I counted no less than five montages in the film and nearly all of them involved Hough’s character. While she’s singing “Harden My Heart” she’s shown looking for a job and suffering the indignities of LA lifestyle…in the rain. Seriously…she’s in about four different outfits and it rains every time she’s walking the street. It’s only when she happens upon strip club owner Justice (Blige) that the rain stops as she enters a new world.
With its PG-13 rating, Hough works in a strip club where no one strips. Don’t get me wrong, there are ladies dancing (pole dancing like gymnasts) but nothing is remotely skeevy enough to make you feel sorry for anyone involved. There are two numbers in this strip club and again, the athletic choreography is lost thanks to hatchet editing that robs the viewer of seeing the full scale of dancing. It’s frustrating to say the least.
So…to the music side of things we shall go. Boasting 20+ classic 1980’s rock tunes (the film is set in 1987) there’s not really a bad one in the bunch. Unlike other jukebox musicals Rock of Ages doesn’t always try to make the song fit into what is happening on screen. It often does make sense but it’s not played for comic effect like Mamma Mia! with songs springing from heavily set up situations.
The biggest problem I had with the movie was some seriously sloppy filmmaking. It almost feels like seven different movies were shot with some crossover casting and someone just edited the movies together. There’s no real narrative to follow and random characters will show up and pick up plotlines long since forgotten. The whole Zeta-Jones/Cranston arc is a prime example of a major plot point that is only brought up when the movie feels like it. It makes for a very (sorry Catherine) bi-poplar experience and it also goes for the song to scene ratio. There will be twenty minute long stretches where eight songs will come back to back and then it’s all dialogue for a half hour. These jumps are jarring enough that I never fully relaxed into the world Rock of Ages was trying to take me to.
Ultimately, this proved a disappointing experience for me. However, the day after I screened the movie I received a copy of the soundtrack and my outlook became rosier again. Investing in the soundtrack is a wise choice and may supplant your need to see the film…even though you do owe it to yourself to see Cruise’s excellent work on the big screen. It’s not going to change the face of musicals nor does it signal the end of the singing A-list star..it’s a poorly made film with great songs, one amazing performance, a spattering of decent efforts, and a few laughable strike-outs.