The Ageless Wonder of Rock
This never happens. In the middle of Rock of Ages, I kicked myself for not having upgraded to an IMAX screening. Despite its many narrative and musical problems, you simply must see Adam Shankman's musical tribute to 80s hair bands on as large a screen as you can find, as soon as possible.
Howard Hawks said that a movie should contain three great scenes and no bad ones. By those standards, Rock of Ages doesn't hold up well. Plenty of scenes and songs advance the predictable, PG-13 plot* without stimulating the audience beyond, perhaps, a desire to hear the original version of head-bangin', Reagan-era anthems. But once Tom Cruise shows up as Stacee Jaxx, an aged rock god with a penchant for alcohol, group sex, and out-there non-sequitur mumbling, the film takes a number of delicious diversions into territory more closely resembling grown-up entertainment.
The problem is, Stacee Jaxx doesn't enter the story for quite awhile. In the meantime, we're stuck following Sherie (Juilanne Hough), an aspiring singer just off the bus from Oklahoma who hopes to make it big in Los Angeles. After getting mugged, she's befriended by a bar back named Drew (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the wacky rock club/cultural institution, The Bourbon Room, where he works. The owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin), and his assistant manager, Lonny (Russell Brand), have the look of jaded, burn-out freaks. But because Rock of Ages is essentially Empire Records by way of Xanadu, they naturally take a liking to Sherie and help her and her future boyfriend (SPOILER!) achieve their dreams of rock stardom.
Meanwhile, newly-elected, philandering mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his Christian-values-spewing wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have launched a campaign to shut down the club and "clean up" the neighborhood (i.e. lay the groundwork for more profitable businesses to swoop in). It's clear from the get-go that these people have agendas other than what their public faces suggest, which makes them a lot more interesting than our squeaky-clean, one-note leads.
Will they succeed? Of course not! Does the up-tight moral crusader have some punk-rock skeletons in her closet? You bet she does! And none of it matters, because Rock of Ages isn't about story surprises. All its tricks are reserved for Stacee Jaxx, who rolls into town to perform a farewell show with his band, Arsenal, at The Bourbon Room. Once he arrives, the movie goes from bubblegum to brown acid and takes all its characters on a freakish descent into the depths of glam-rock Hell. In other words, it becomes really, really fun.
I'd like to back up and say that I appreciate what Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo, and Allan Loeb do with the screenplay, which was adapted from D'Arienzo's stage musical. Rock of Ages will never escape comparisons to Glee or accusations of being mere celebrity karaoke, but looking beyond the obvious potshots, it's a great idea for a musical--one that Shankman handles deftly in the transition to the big screen. Using great rock and pop songs from the Era of Excess to tell a single story is a terrific technique that really forced me to pay attention to music I'd written off as catchy but forgettable.
When Cruise sings "Dead or Alive" while strutting through a sparse rock club, screaming about his lonely life on the road, I finally realized what Bon Jovi had been singing about all these years; I never even liked that song until two nights ago. While Cruise doesn't hold a candle to the original artist, the sheer passionate angst of his performance ensures that I'll never be able to hear "Dead or Alive" again without thinking of Stacee Jaxx being virtually pulled down into a crowd of needy fans.
Shankman achieves a different effect later on when Jaxx nails Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) on a pool table, to the tune of "I Want to Know What Love Is". The scene turns the melodrama of Foreigner's ballad into a kinky, comedic metaphor: Satan personified conquers a headstrong, feminist fan in order to shut her up, but her probing questions about his flagging career and unquenchable appetite for distraction plant the seeds of redemption--even as he voraciously sniffs her panties on a pool table mid-verse.
Jaxx infects every inch of the film's lame purity, and there's a terrific, gradual meta-reveal in the form of his manager's character arc. Paul Giamatti plays the slimy Paul Gill, who we first believe to be an over-the-hill-but-clinging-to-hipness slave to Jaxx's ego. Later, we realize that Gill is, in fact, the dark overlord that the protesters should be worried about, keeping Jaxx and all his clients rich, doped-up, and busy enough not to realize how completely he's screwing them, financially.
When Gill sees The Bourbon Room's reaction to Drew's rock debut, he instantly descends on the boy with promises of fame and fortune--offerable on the condition that he forget about the dreamgirl with whom he's in the middle of a silly fight. Giamatti plays Gill not as a mustache-twirling villain, but as a simple purveyor of all the things kids claim that they want: everlasting, complete gratification and world-wide notoriety. He provides proof that he can deliver, and they sign on the dotted line; their surprise at his misdeeds could have been avoided by either reading the fine print or simply looking into his wide, beady eyes.
Jaxx's influence on the story wanes the farther it strays from him, but its odd effects are still recognizable. Following their argument, Drew and Sherie break up and quit the club. She takes a job as a stripper in a joint run by Mary J. Blige; he signs with Gill on the eve of hair-metal's demise. Sherie trades her jean jacket and tall hair for fishnets and incredible pole athletics; Drew becomes the fourth lead in a New Kids on the Block-style boy band, complete with puffy, bright-colored jackets and the sacrificing of his curly locks for a close-cropped Supercut.
This stretch of the film finally gives our leads something interesting to do. Instead of staring into each other's eyes like Disney characters, they become unwitting metaphors for the death of rock 'n roll. The head-bangin' fun of dirty rock clubs gave way to marketing and music that could be enjoyed by as many cash-happy demographics as possible. In short, the characters and the industry grow up and sell out. We're meant to laugh at the stupidity of Drew's boy band, but it's hard to defend the non-conformist integrity of, say, Twisted Sister when "We're Not Gonna Take It" seems to pop up on any ad whose product promotes rebellion with the twist of a cap.
From what I understand, the film version of Rock of Ages sanitizes a lot of the stage play's edgier material, which is a shame. But the film reminds us that entertainment is 95% economics and 5% art, and you're not going to land this lineup, ad campaign, and these production values by going full-on Boogie Nights. But I think Shankman and the writers do their best to rope in teeny-boppers and suburban moms (and their eye-rolling, I-pick-the-next-one boyfriends/husbands) and providing them with a healthy bit of challenging material--buried in mounds of glittery pop sugar. There's a lot of Glee here,** but just enough unsettling malice to make a trip to the cineplex worth it.
By now, you've heard that the main reason to see Rock of Ages is Tom Cruise's performance. That's totally true (Baldwin, Brand, and Giamatti are also fantastic, by the way). Just as The Dark Knight was a boring mess of a movie that was propelled into the stratosphere by Heath Ledger's otherworldly, career-capping turn, Cruise makes all the great stuff in the movie greater, and shines a harsh light on everything that doesn't work--namely Hough and Boneta. Hough moves backwards from her roll in last year's incredibly surprising Footloose remake, and Boneta emotes painfully, as if he's constantly building an American accent instead of a character.
But let's get back to Cruise. Say what you will about his off-screen behavior, on-screen personae, and religious beliefs. In Rock of Ages, he brings an Oscar-worthy tornado of commitment and charisma that has to be seen to be believed. He's surrounded by lots of bad scenes, a few good ones, and probably three great ones--which he anchors. I'm not sure that meets Hawks's definition of a movie, but in Shankman's capable hands, it's provides a uniquely cinematic experience.
*Really? A movie about 80s rock excess where booze takes center stage and cocaine apparently never existed? I was reminded of How I Met Your Mother, in which a parent walks his kids through college flashbacks, safely substituting sub sandwiches for bongs.
**Particularly in Hough and Boneta's "Don't Stop Believin'" duet--which, I'm sorry, doesn't hold a candle to the William McKinley High kids; though I love Drew's line about the lyrics early on, which I won't spoil for you.