’80s hair metal jukebox musical is a glorious fiasco
There are plenty of bad movies out there in the world – boring gasps of air clashing against the silver screen like bugs on a car window. Goopy with mediocrity, these films are quickly wiped from public consciousness and forgotten. They clog up the screens of movie theaters for a few weeks before zooming along toward their final destination: DVD bargain bins and a future as unwanted Father’s Day gifts.
A fiasco, though, is special. Fiascos only come around once in a while – shining bright against the night sky in a glorious explosion of ill-conceived passion. Rock of Ages, the new jukebox musical from director Adam Shankman is a fiasco – the kind that will blister the brains of moviegoers, possibly end careers of the talent involved and, through its sheer, unrelenting awfulness, achieve legend.
It doesn’t take long for Rock of Ages to announce exactly what type of movie it is. As a bus full of strangers turn Night Ranger’s rock anthem “Sister Christian” into a bubblegum pop showtune – including a solo from an adorable little girl with a lisp – it becomes completely apparent that the musical’s mission is to remove every edge available from a decade’s catalog of music. A jukebox musical, Rock of Ages strings together a light-weight story – so overfed with tired story beats and paper-thin characters – for the sole purpose of adding padding to a big screen adaptation of Karaoke Thursdays at your local bar. Rock of Ages is a film that exists to sell a soundtrack – a soundtrack choking on autotuned versions of songs that were barely listenable to in the first place.
Newcomers Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta lead the cast of Rock of Ages as two attractive fame-seekers who discover each other on their path to being discovered themselves. Hough is Sherrie, a naïve young woman uprooted from Oklahoma on her search for something better in life – be it fame or love. Boneta is Drew, a paper doll dressed up in leather and eye makeup and inserted in the place of an actual character. Orbiting the two talentless leads are a collection of slumming stars that alternate their time between looking increasingly embarrassed for themselves and belting out terrible covers of music from artists such as Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Journey and Twisted Sister.
Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are perhaps the two biggest offenders. The duo play the managers of a popular nightclub on Sunset Strip – the center of most of the film’s action. Peripheral characters who exist solely as comedic relief in a film that does not realize that it is already one big joke to begin with, Baldwin and Brand’s characters stutter out a string of humorless jokes – stopping only to occasionally garble out a verse in one of the movie’s endless string of pointless musical interludes.
It’s time to pause for a second. From that last reference to “pointless musical interludes,” it may appear that I am not a fan of musicals. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is because I am such a fan of musicals that it pains me so to see examples of the genre that fall so flat in their attempt to organically work music into story. A good musical should use its songs to further the story – elaborating on a character’s motivations or feelings or extending the progression of the film’s plot. The problem with so many jukebox musicals is that the need to shoehorn specific songs into a story leaves the writers grasping for ways to make the music’s lyric work in connection with the plot. In Rock of Ages, audiences are left with characters breaking out into song and singing lyrics that have absolutely no connection with the story of the film or the arcs the characters are experiencing. The songs have no purpose in the larger web of the story beyond hammering in the film’s overpowering camp worship of the ‘80s hair metal scene. Songs are inserted into the film only because the audience expects them to be there.
Sometimes leather pant-wearing planets align and the musical numbers at least camouflage into the rest of the film’s mediocrity. Other times, though, we stumble into fiasco territory. Glorious, glorious fiasco territory. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the film’s antagonist (a prudish women campaigning against rock music). A new addition to the musical’s story (with three credited writers, it’s obvious from the go that much of the original stage musical was altered for the big screen adaptation), Zeta-Jones’ character is responsible for one of the film’s biggest WTF moments when she leads a church full of pantsuit wearing moms in a rendition of Pat Benitar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Looking beyond the fact that the song has nothing to do with the scene it springs forth from, the scene features some of the craziest choreography I have ever seen in a musical. Shankman’s skills in dance chorography are renowned so I have no idea what happened here. As Zeta-Jones and her back-up singers bob, gyrate and jump through the church, the movie becomes transcendental. You can actually see the future internet memes and campy worship around the film’s goofiness being formed in utero.
Rounding out the film’s leads in Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, a character who is a rock god. The audience knows he is a rock god because we are told so once every twenty minutes. Good thing too because if not for the constant reminder that Stacee Jaxx is supposed to be a legendary rock and roll star, the audience would have never known it. Sure he has the swagger and the sex-drenched stank of fame oozes off Cruise’s person like stink lines on a cartoon character. But, on stage, Crusie’s Jaxx is no more a rock god than your little brother is Keith Richards while he dances in front of the TV while playing Guitar Hero. Jaxx is a vacant-eyed, soulful human vacuum – sucking every ounce of energy from the film whenever he appears on screen. He sings a couple of songs but for the most part, Cruise spends his time in Rock of Ages wordlessly careening about in skin-tight leather pans whispering some crazy non-sequitur that is supposed to evoke memories of Axel Rose but instead acts as dust sprung forth from the Sandman’s pouch . Mark Wahlberg had more life in him throughout the film Rock Star and Wahlberg spent the entirety of that movie in a waking coma.
Rock of Ages is an exercise in misplaced enthusiasm. Who is the film for? Is the generation that grew up on ‘80s hair metal really now keen to see their youth’s music turned into jelly-filled pop song covers and sung while actors prance through a camp-crusted montage sequence? The musical is a spineless gelatinous piece of goop – milked of any hint of sex appeal and primped up for the “Glee” generation. What saves the film, though, is its unrelenting willingness to go that extra mile in camp.
It’s the dancing, the unfunny jokes, the vacant zombie eyes of Mary J. Blige, the sheer boredom on Paul Giamatti’s face as he waltzes his way through a musical in which he sings only one line. By the time we get to the shoe-horned in happy ending (seriously, the movie makes a severe departure from the original off-Broadway musical in its third-act), the audience has already checked out mentally – zoning out the film like America now zones out ‘80s rock music as it drifts down from the speakers in super markets and hotel elevators. But then something magnificent happens – the movie pushes back against common sense just a little more and sends the film careening into the stuff of bad movie legend. In a lot of ways it’s impressive that a musical this big of a fiasco was able to be carved from music so utterly forgettable. That, my friends, is a feat worth holding your lighter up for.
Director: Adam Shankman Writers: Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb, Justin Theroux based off the play “Rock of Ages” by Chris D’Arienzo Notable Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Åkerman, Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Tom Cruise
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.