My favorite rock band of all time is AC/DC. I have seen them more than any other band in concert. That’s because seeing your favorite band in concert — especially one as electrifying live as AC/DC — is an experience that can’t be reproduced in any form of media. The music business has survived in the illegal download era because of ticket sales — one can download a song, but one can’t download a live concert experience.
I have never seen Rock of Ages the stage musical (which is odd considering how much I love 1980s rock), but everyone I know who has speaks of it as an experience rather than a show. How could it not be? A musical that uses the music of Foreigner, Journey, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Pat Benatar to tell the story of a Sunset Strip bar in 1987 is like a religious experience for those who grew up pre-grunge. While the film adaptation — which, as I have come to find out, has made several significant changes to the musical — definitely gets an ‘A’ for enthusiasm, it’s far less fun than it should be. Instead of the live energy of seeing your favorite band in concert, Rock of Ages (the movie) is like watching your favorite band in a concert DVD. It’s the same performance, but it’s not the same experience.
The story is a simple one: Shellie Christian (Julianne Hough) moves to Hollywood with rock star dreams and meets Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a bar back at the famous rock venue The Bourbon Room who has similar rock star dreams. It is several days before the final performance of Arsenal, whose space-case lead singer Stacee Jaxx (an incredible Tom Cruise) is going solo. At the same time, the wife of the new mayor, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones as a character added for the film), is leading the crusade against Stacee Jaxx and to close The Bourbon Room for good, putting its owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and manager Lonnie (Russell Brand) out of business. Naturally, all of these plots tie together by the end of the film.
Of course, in order to succeed the movie needs to recall the 1980s era, which it doesn’t quite do. Hough’s wardrobe and hairstyles alternate between being authentic and being straight out of a modern-day John Varvatos ad, and as far as Boneta goes I know that in real life he is a pop musician, and he looks ever bit like a pop musician, not a rock star. The two can sing, which is wonderful — because the rest of the cast (with the exception of Mary J. Blige, Zeta-Jones, and Cruise) can’t.
Take Russell Brand, for instance. I have no idea why he was cast in this movie in a prominent speaking role, because only about a third of what he says is decipherable. Brand might try to look like an 80s rocker in real life (and probably pulls the look off better than anyone else in the film with the exception of Cruise), but he’s about as rock and roll as my dentist. Similarly, Alec Baldwin is simply playing Alec Baldwin in a wig. I know that Baldwin’s schtick these days is exactly that, but he could have brought something more than a long-haired Jack Donaghy to the role. Their singing performances are obviously canned (which is to be expected in a movie musical), but they’re still not very good. Despite not being “names”, I could name two dozen Broadway stars who could’ve done the roles much better. Again, it removes the magic of the performance, which brings me back to AC/DC — to me, a concert DVD of AC/DC cannot capture a tenth of what seeing the band live is like. Listening to Brand and Baldwin warble through REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” is at a level about one-one hundredth of what a live Broadway performance is. They’re almost in a completely different movie.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. As I mentioned, Mary J. Blige dominates the movie with her powerful voice when she arrives halfway through the movie. But I have to give credit to Tom Cruise — this is HIS movie. His performance as Stacee Jaxx is as electric as his scene-stealing performance as Lew Waxman in Tropic Thunder, and he not only has the look but he sings quite well, too. In particular, in an interview scene Cruise’s performance recalls the iconic “drunk in his mom’s pool” Chris Holmes interview in the legendary heavy metal documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. I actually felt bad for the other actors, though — as good as Hough and Boneta are at singing, they don’t have the on-screen charisma that Cruise does. By default he becomes the main character, even though he’s not supposed to be.
It’s too slick, too perfect, and not as dirty as it should be — after all, rock and roll is dirty, and this film is supposed to celebrate that. The revised “happier” ending doesn’t help, which comes from the addition of Malin Akerman as a love interest for Cruise. She’s a bookish Rolling Stone reporter. Really? Since when did music journalists (from Rolling Stone, no less) dress like schoolmarms? And why would Rolling Stone be covering Stacee Jaxx when Rolling Stone was notoriously anti-80’s hard rock bands? Akerman is beautiful and wonderful, but her character obviously doesn’t belong in the film — and, as I found out later, isn’t even a character in the original musical, which is probably why she is so out-of-place.
Director Adam Shankman, who has also directed the film adaptation of the Hairspray musical, definitely put together the right team of choreographers and set designers because the film looks great (aside from the inconsistent costumes), but he didn’t have the right cast, which renders the film about half as fun as it should have been. Though the musical’s writer Chris D’Arienzo co-wrote the screenplay, I question why he, Justin Theroux, and Allan Loeb changed so much of what made the original musical a smash hit. Gazing at the list of songs in the stage musical, I also wonder why so many songs were either deleted or swapped with others… making the movie seem even more like seeing a tribute band of your favorite band… it’s just no substitute.
See it for Tom Cruise and if you like 1980s rock music, but the final product here isn’t what it should be. It’s good, but far from great, and if this was representative of the actual musical I don’t think the stage show would’ve become the smash hit it has since become.
Rating: I wanted to like it more than I did, but it’s rock and roll without enough soul (6/10).
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