Movie Review: Rock of Ages
I read somewhere once that the 80s are to this decade what the 50s were to the 80s. That’s a pretty chilling thought for any child of the 80s such as myself. Eighties nostalgia has been going strong for more than a decade (if you want to feel old, consider that both the 80s-themed Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and VH1′s I Love The 80s debuted in 2002, probably the height of nostalgia for that decade). Of course, in the late 70s, audiences were treated to Grease, a fifties-era musical filled with nostalgia for that bygone time. And now audiences have Rock of Ages. But aside from the singing and the nostalgia for a past time period, Rock of Ages really doesn’t share anything else with Grease, especially quality.
Rock of Ages primarily follows Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a wide-eyed Oklahoma girl who travels to Los Angeles in 1987 to follow her dream of becoming – what else – a singer. Fresh off the bus, Sherrie is mugged, though apparently the only thing she was carrying in her luggage were vinyl records. Kids! At the Bourbon Room, she meets Drew (Diego Boneta), a barback and also, SURPRISE! A singer himself! The Bourbon is a popular, but financially troubled, rock club on the Sunset strip facing protests from the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) because she considers the club to be lewd and disgusting. And to further complicate matters, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a rock megastar who plans to begin a solo career, is slated to make his last appearance with his band at the Bourbon in just a few days.
Hands down, the most interesting and successful part of Rock of Ages is the use of real 80s rock tunes. Rock of Ages apparently exists in this parallel reality where Journey, Bon Jovi, and other rock groups don’t exist. Instead, the cast gets to sing these songs at one another and many times sing dueling songs. It’s these mashups that are the highlight of the film. Watching Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta Jones compete with one another in a mash up of We Built This City and We’re Not Gonna Take It is pretty fun. The problems arise when you consider that not all of the cast is exactly up to the task of singing these songs.
Considering that Rock of Ages is ostensibly a musical first, the lack of real musicians in many of these roles is disheartening. Catherine Zeta Jones, for instance, previously starred in Chicago and here shows the same lack of singing talent that she did there. She doesn’t have the worst singing voice (she’s not as bad as Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia), but she’s not in the same league as Brand, Hough, Mary J. Blige, and Boneta, all of whom have had extensive vocal training. The same problem applies to Alec Baldwin (playing Dennis, the Bourbon’s owner), Paul Giamatti, and Tom Cruise. Cruise in particular is a sticking point. His character has to sing so many 80s favorites (like Wanted Dead or Alive and Don’t Stop Believin’) and Cruise just isn’t quite up to the task.
As a musical, it’s not important enough to just have big names in the cast, they also have to perform adequately. Without decent performances you might as well be listening to a high production value karaoke performance. You’d be better off just listening to the original songs on Spotify rather than sitting through two hours of Rock of Ages. It might be a different issue if the film itself were better, but that’s simply not the case.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “Tom Cruise? I don’t really like that guy.” Okay, maybe not all of you are thinking that, but I totally understand those of you who were worried with Cruise. For my part, I think that Cruise is best when he’s playing against his own public image of the leading man and hero. Movies like Tropic Thunder (where he played a balding, vulgar studio executive under heavy prosthetic makeup) and Collateral (where he played a grey-haired assassin who forces a taxi driver to drive him to his targets) work best for Cruise because he’s playing so against type. Here, in Rock of Ages, Cruise plays crazy. It’s perhaps not so far from his public persona, but it’s lightyears away from his film image. Stacee Jaxx is a boozed up lunatic, and the character (if not his singing) actually works fairly well. The problem is that the amount of focus on the character is simply unnecessary.
In fact, that’s the most damning aspect of Rock of Agesl there are simply too many characters who are completely superfluous to the plot. Catherine Zeta Jones’ machinations as the primary villain amount to approximately two songs about stopping the Bourbon and little more. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays the mayor of Los Angeles and (unfaithful) husband to Jones’ character, but his role is pointless. He sings no songs, and has next to no impact on the events of the film. I like Cranston, and appreciate his increasing popularity in Hollywood, but he’s completely wasted here. Like Idris Elba, Cranston, seems to appear in every other film released these days. And I’m concerned about the amount of pure awesome that would be created should the two star in the same movie!)
The same can be said of Malin Akerman, here playing a Rolling Stone writer who is profiling Jaxx. When her character comes on screen it completely derails any momentum the film had with Sherrie and Drew to focus on her and Jaxx. Between Jones, Cranston, Akerman, Cruise, and Giamatti (who plays Jaxx’s weasel of a manager) we don’t really get to focus on Sherrie and Drew, which is a shame. Not because I liked these two characters, but because their story is really the only one that should matter to the plot. Instead, every character has a half-baked arc that is either uneccessary or underdeveloped. And lest you think that this was a problem with the original stage production, the film’s script underwent significant changes in the translation, adding and deleting characters and plots and changing the stage show’s somewhat sobering ending.
As a piece of hyperbolic 80s nostalgia, Rock of Ages works only through the bombastic styles and the creative remixes of beloved songs. As a film, Rock of Ages fails to perform. Sort of like half of its cast! (Zing!) The script is lacking, the plotting and narrative arcs are bizarre, and half of the cast has problems singing, which is kind of a prerequisite for this musical. I’d bet that you probably already own most of these songs. Do yourself a favor and just listen to the original recordings, because Rock of Ages isn’t going to do your memories of those incredible songs any favors.