Whenever a stage musical is adapted for the big screen, my feelings toward the project are inevitably mixed. On one hand I am excited when any musical gets made into an accessible film that the whole world can experience. On the other hand, recent stage adaptations have left much to desire either due to a poor execution of a great source musical (see Sweeney Todd) or a decent execution of a terrible source musical (see Mamma Mia!). Rarely do we see a brilliant musical brought to stage with imagination and heart in an exciting new way (see Cabaret).
Enter Rock of Ages, the new film based on the 2009 Broadway musical of the same name, a decent musical that gets a stale adaptation from Hairspray director Adam Shankman. While I have never seen the stage musical that the film is based on, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it a “seriously silly, absurdly enjoyable” show. While much of that silliness translates to the big screen, it does so in the form of a story that is so thin and cliché that not even a rousing power ballad can make me care about the personalities underneath the huge hair and candy-colored clothing.
The main story in Rock of Ages follows small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and city boy Drew (Diego Boneta) who cross paths in Los Angeles while pursuing dreams of Rock and Roll stardom. Their idol Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is in town for one last concert with his band before he goes solo. Stacee’s alcoholism and eccentricity have his manager (Paul Giamatti) and The Bourbon Room owner (Alec Baldwin) following his every move. Meanwhile the wife of L.A.’s new mayor, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is on a crusade against the Rock and Rollers and their corruption of youthful hearts and minds.
Based on that minor setup above you can probably predict every direction that the plot will go. Ancillary characters include a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Ackerman) who tries to finally get past unhinged exterior of Stacee Jaxx, a strip-club owner with a heart of gold (Mary J. Blige), and the assistant to the Bar Owner who is played by Russell Brand and is here to do Russell Brand things. The selling point for the movie is not the plot or the characters, however, but the music. Each scene is underscored by songs by Journey, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Kiss, and many more.
Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical, meaning it was composed of several already existing songs that were sculpted into a narrative. The jukebox show has been around since musicals first came to the screen many decades ago, but the most recent batch seems increasingly lazy. Not only do the songs contribute little to the film’s narrative, but in the movie version of Rock of Ages, the random bursts of music don’t even seem to be acknowledged by the film’s characters. In one scene that takes place in a record store, Drew jumps onto counters and across aisles while playing air guitar and belting out the song “Jukebox Hero,” then the song ends and he immediately confesses to having crippling stage fright. “Then what did you just do?” I found myself wondering, “Do all of the characters suffer from short-term memory loss?”
Shankman and his creative team rely on nostalgia to inspire much of the films action, character development, and comedy. However, the film offers nothing that we have not seen before from the myriad of movies and television shows set during the hair band craze of the 1980s. Along with references galore, the movie has too many songs crammed into its 2-hour running time. With a stage show, 20+ songs are manageable because of the additional length and the intermission, which allows the audience the chance to catch their breath and collect their thoughts on the still unfolding plot. In Rock of Ages, the music felt like it was interrupting, rather than enhancing, the scenes and preventing character development because the songs had little to do with the narrative.
The recognizable power ballads are left mostly intact in terms of arrangement and the singers seem to be trying to sound like the original artists rather than providing their own spin. The choreography by Shankman and Mia Michaels was lively enough to prevent it from feeling like karaoke night at the Troubadour. A few particular numbers actually worked quite well, for instance the cover of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by Baldwin and Brand was silly enough to bring a smile to my face. However, when “Don’t Stop Believing” cued up as the musicals big finale number, there was not nearly enough energy or originality to justify the song’s umpteenth appearance in pop culture over the last three years. Whether you like it or not, 1980s rock might not be the best vehicle to tell a story, especially not one so filled with unjustified clichés.
Bottom Line: “But the movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on…”