When The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, the film competed for box office dollars with nearly thirty other musicals launched in that same year. In recent times, onscreen song and dance have mostly been resigned to animated films targeted for viewing by the juice-box crowd – with only one or two feature live-action musicals being releasied each year (Burlesque in 2010, The Muppets in 2011, and Les Misérables in December 2012). As a result, when it was first announced that So You Think You Can Dance judge (as well as Hairspray director) Adam Shankman was set to helm a film adaptation of Chris D’Arienzo’s racy 2006 Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, starring a singing and dancing Tom Cruise, reaction was understandably mixed.
Juxtaposing entertaining song and dance numbers with equally satisfying character development and narrative payoff is especially tricky these days; so does Rock of Ages ultimately deliver an engaging film experience for fans of the musical genre as well as enough core entertainment value to draw in less fervent newcomers?
On the one hand, Rock of Ages has a lot to offer musical enthusiasts (as well as fans of the original Broadway show), but unfortunately, the film also has a lot of problems – problems that will definitely alienate outsiders to the genre. Despite thinly drawn (and overly familiar) narrative threads, some stilted performances and an overly long runtime, Rock of Ages is saved by a number of slick song and dance numbers as well as an especially entertaining performance by Tom Cruise as eccentric “Rock God” Stacee Jaxx. The final film is an awkward blend of comedy, drama, and musical mashups that, without taking the proceedings too seriously, does have a lot to offer – but is still difficult to recommend to moviegoers across the board.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Broadway show, the Rock of Ages film adaptation follows wannabe singer, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) after she ditches her Oklahoma roots and arrives in 1987 Los Angeles – to become a rock and roll star. Moments after stepping off the bus, she gets mugged, and is quickly “saved” by busboy (and wannabe singer), Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), who works at the iconic Bourbon Room music venue. Drew introduces Sherrie to the Bourbon Room’s manager and owner, Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand) and Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) respectively, who reluctantly agree to hire the Los Angeles newcomer as a waitress. Despite the success of the concert hall, the Bourbon Room is on the verge of financial collapse – not to mention pressure from Mayor Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who ran on an anti-Rock & Roll platform – and must look to increasingly eccentric “Rock God,” Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), to help save the club. Of course, the Jaxx concert doesn’t go entirely as planned, and the characters are thrown into a number of compromising situations over the subsequent weeks – with only a love of Rock & Roll left to help them find their way back to musical (and personal) nirvana.
As previously mentioned, Rock of Ages is a pretty campy affair that should appeal to fans of the musical genre. Nearly all of the actors give entertaining performances; however, for filmgoers looking for “deep” characters or “believable” performances, Rock of Ages will no doubt leave a lot to be desired. Much of the onscreen action is intentionally tongue-in-cheek – prioritizing over-the-top choreography instead of grounded character drama. The focus works to the film’s advantage, but anyone who isn’t onboard with the camp factor will instantly be sucked out of the movie within the first two minutes (i.e. the moment that Sherrie first starts belting out Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” while seated on a Greyhound bus). Again, this isn’t a dismissal of the talent involved (nearly all of the musical performances are surprisingly sharp) but Rock of Ages is unapologetic about its goofy approach as a rock musical film mashup – evidenced by a slick rendition of Quarterflash’s ”Harden My Heart” taking place in an upscale strip club.
Regardless, Rock of Ages is overstuffed with plot points that don’t always justify their screen time – as if (unsurprisingly) Shankman developed the overarching film around a series of song and dance set pieces that he wanted to include (the act two “Can’t Fight This Feeling” duet is especially unearned). The Sherrie/Drew storyline is overly melodramatic, Patricia Whitmore moments are especially one-note (despite a deliberately goofy performance from Cranston as the Mayor), and much of the “conflict” in the film is resolved through extremely predictable (and familiar) story beats. As a result, the larger film narrative comes across as a series of catchy musical numbers stitched together with thin, and at times, downright bizarre, character filler.
Fortunately, Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx succeeds as the movie’s only memorable addition – and one of 2012′s most entertaining characters. While many filmgoers were skeptical that Cruise would be able to pull off his singer/dancer act in Rock of Ages, the A-lister is (without question) the best part of the proceedings – and surprisingly, a pretty talented singer (depending on how much post-production work was applied to his recorded vocals). Jaxx, a caricature mix of rock icons like Axl Rose and Jim Morrison, is also the only character in the entire production that’s given a genuine narrative arc worth its onscreen time investment. His motivations are thin, compared to Cruise’s more traditional dramatic work, but watching Jaxx’s journey play out is still pretty satisfying.
Modern moviegoers can be quick to dismiss musicals as relics of a time long-past – when films didn’t always take themselves as seriously. and subsequently, audiences had an easier time suspending disbelief when actors did more singing (and dancing) than talking (and developing characters). In that way, Rock of Ages is both a rousing throwback and a missed opportunity. Musical fans will likely find themselves engaged in the onscreen numbers and campy comedy beats, but for anyone who isn’t outright interested in the film, Rock of Ages hits plenty of sour notes. Instead, the movie is mostly pandering to its base without putting in the extra effort to standout as not just a competent musical, but a must-see film experience for all audiences.
If you’re still on the fence about Rock of Ages, check out the trailer below:
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Rock of Ages is Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language. Now playing in theaters.