It may not have the irreverence of a stage musical, but this adaptation provides something missing from our screens: sheer fun from start to finish. Come feel the noise!
Fans of the original jukebox musical Rock of Ages will know what a good night out the production is, building its freewheeliing narrative around music of “more or less” the mid-to-late 1980s. Frequently breaking the “fourth wall” of the stage, audience members are actively encouraged to do shots at the interval and hold aloft faux cigarette lighters during the torch songs. Capturing this interactive element on screen is an impossible task, but the material was placed in the reliable hands of Adam Shankman, who had previously done a terrific job in bringing musical Hairspray to the masses. While the beer and sweat may be less tangible than the live experience, there is plenty of fun to be had in this delightfully batty musical.
Written for the screen by actor Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb, Rock of Ages more or less follows the same story arc as its stage inspiration, although like Hairspray, plot details and characters were greatly expanded for the more linear format of cinema. Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) arrives in Los Angeles with stars in her eyes, dreaming of a singing career, but is promptly mugged. She meets Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a barback at the legendary Bourbon Room, a nightclub on the Sunset Strip, and they instantly fall in love.
Struggling financially, Bourbon owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and right-hand man Lonny (Russell Brand) concoct to get megastars Arsenal, led by the godlike Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), to perform their last gig at the Bourbon. However, newly elected Mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his social campaigning wife Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) want to tear down the Bourbon, beginning a cycle of events that threatens to tear them all apart.
Replacing the German developers of the stage musical with a Christian anti-rock lobby immediately gives this Rock of Ages an old fashioned quality, but mirrors the very real Tipper Gore led crusade of the era. This retro refit allows the film the freedom it needs to try and capture some of the anarchic spirit of the stage musical, and gives Zeta-Jones a terrific war cry in the form of Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”. The mashup of “We Built This City”/”We’re Not Gonna Take It” makes for one of the best sequences in the film, with the Brand and Zeta-Jones leading respective crowds of supporters against each other in a face-off that would have made the Jets and the Sharks proud.
Newcomer Boneta is a likeable lead, and Footloose star Hough is no stranger to song and dance numbers. Their “More Than Words/Heaven” medley is heartfelt, and their relationship is so sweet it hurts. However, while both are capable performers, Hough is more often than not drowned out by the orchestration, and Boneta has a bigger star to be consumed by. Tom Cruise, replete with a mystic swagger and an ape named Hey Man, is every bit the Axl Rose persona he is meant to be, although he is painted in a far more positive light in this film than his stage counterpart. His “Wanted Dead or Alive” makes Bon Jovi drip with cool, and that is a significant achievement in itself.
Zeta-Jones, all air pushes and high-kicks, camps it up and occasionally wanders into another movie entirely, but provides a confident presence. Paul Giamatti, as Jaxx’s manager, is clearly having a lot of fun, and is the focus of much of the retro humour, from giant phones to boy bands. Individually, Brand and Baldwin underwhelm, and the film misses the personality that Lonny, who also serves as the narrator on stage, provides. However, the “Can’t Fight This Feeling” duet between Brand and Baldwin may be the best thing you will ever see on screen.
The songs and performances may not have the same powerful arrangement as the stage equivalent, seeming somewhat subdued and too “clean” in the film and its accompanying soundtrack. When experienced recording artist Mary J. Blige turns up for “Shadows of the Night”/”Harden My Heart” and the sexy staging of “Any Way You Want It”, the difference is palpable. Yet as the inevitable conclusion builds towards the entire cast performing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, it will be hard to wipe the sloppy grin from your face.
Rock of Ages was released in Australia on 14 June 2012 from Roadshow Films.