by Christian Baines
By any rational laws of musical theatre, 80’s hair rock jukeboxer Rock of Ages should never have got off the ground. Yet next April will see it complete its fourth year on Broadway, with no sign of slowing down. Not bad for an LA import with a score composed of 80’s rock hits and a shamelessly tongue-in-cheek book.
The show’s success lies in its creators being smart enough to use the concept’s absurdity to their advantage. Simply put, it’s a polished, smart and wonderfully silly musical that wields its popular hits in service to the story, rather than trying to shoe-horn them in under contrivance. No need to name and shame failures here. The tendency of most jukebox musicals to disregard this simple rule is what’s earned the genre its woeful reputation.
Given Rock of Ages’ spectacular rise, it was only a matter of time before the West Coast wanted it back for a film version, which rounded up Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, alongside Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough as starry-eyed young rockers, Drew and Sherrie, drawn by the fame, fortune and filth of the infamous Bourbon Lounge. Rock of Ages is their story.
Or is it? In this film, it’s hard to tell.
We get the impression nobody was around to remind director Adam Shankman and his writing team that they are not Bob Fosse, this is not Cabaret, and if you’re going to re-cut a musical’s book to replace entire subplots, change characters and craft an entirely new storyline, you’d better be sure to tie up the loose ends and ensure the whole thing’s properly integrated. Shankman’s done a wonderful job of this on the songs, which in fairness, were going to be highly adaptable from the get go. They fly by as either inoffensive extensions of the narrative or pointedly overplayed ‘stop and smirk’ numbers, such as Zeta-Jones’ ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot.’ Her character, however, is one of the new additions to the plot (a Bachmann-esque, conservative mayor’s wife who wants the Bourbon Lounge struck from the Sunset Strip) with scant relevance to it. She’s tied in, almost as an afterthought, minutes before the credits roll and it gives her character no chance to evolve.
More compelling, is the story of Bourbon Lounge owner Dennis Dupree (Baldwin)’s bid to save his struggling club with a performance by aging rock icon Stacee Jaxx (a jaw dropping performance by Cruise, proving that under all the couch-jumping crazy still lurks a damn good actor). Maybe it’s the stars who carry it home (Brand, as the Bourbon’s manager, seems far more at home here than he has in any movie role to date), but these are by far the film’s most interesting and well developed characters, even when they toss it all aside for a quick laugh (which in this case, rather than breaking the story’s momentum, suits the sly tone of the original show down to the ground).
Where does that leave Drew and Sherrie? Uh… good question. Boneta and Hough are charming, their scenes are certainly cute and they get several of the film’s best lines. But beyond Drew’s jealousy over Sherrie’s fangirl worship of Jaxx (shared by just about any other female in his wake), their links to the other plots are pretty tenuous. Still, if Rock of Ages doesn’t hold together as cohesively as it should, it at least finds other strengths – mainly its Spinal Tap-esque silliness – and it’s hard to dislike, just for that.
The DVD and Blu-Ray release predictably features a list of features and bonuses geared more to fans of the featured songs than fans of musical theatre. The Blu-Ray also packs an extended cut of the film (the version viewed for this review), but to be honest, it puts a drag on several scenes. Rock of Ages is at its best when it’s playing lean and disposable. Enjoy with that in mind, and you’ll have a fairly forgettable, but undeniably fun time.
Rock of Ages is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.