Friday, June 15, 2012

Rock of Ages

ROCK OF AGES (Adam Shankman, 2012)

When you’re young, the kind of music and particular bands you like can play a big role in asserting your identity.  Expressing a preference for this group and that genre is not merely the method of discovering and sharing your tastes but making a statement about Who You Are.  It’s about deciding what is cool and, perhaps just as critically, what isn’t. Time, though, has a way of breaking down the barriers erected in the battle lines.  Sure, personal tastes may change, but nostalgia can exert its powerful influence to the point that solo artists and groups once banished to the land of the uncool are reevaluated and unconditionally accepted.

I cast my lot with the modern rock/alternative bands as I went through high school and college, and I remember eventually becoming dismissive of the acts that dominated mainstream rock radio despite having listened to those stations and liking many of the songs they played.  I considered “arena rock” to be a handy put-down for popular bands of the 1970s and ‘80s.  I didn’t own albums by the artists whose music is featured in ROCK OF AGES, yet within the last year I’ve found myself buying some of their greatest hits collections.  I no longer have a use for putting up a front regarding what I like, whether it’s perceived as being cool or not, and object to the concept of guilty pleasures. If that means admitting to enjoying some hits by Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Journey, and Scorpions, so be it.  (OK, fine, I’m still struggling to cop to appreciating some Poison tunes.)

What’s cool and what’s not intersect in the jukebox musical turned feature film ROCK OF AGES.  ‘80s hard rock and hair metal with a pop sensibility and Broadway appear to be a most unnatural pairing, if not diametrically opposed.  (It seems doubtful my high school classmates wearing LES MISÉRABLES t-shirts also rocked out to Guns N’ Roses’ APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION and vice versa.)  However, ROCK OF AGES finds common ground in the emphasis on showmanship and brings fist-pumping energy to rockers and power ballads functioning as showtunes.

The skeleton of a plot flits among three stories set in 1987.  In the foreground are two young lovers with mutual aspirations of becoming professional singers.  Sherrie (Julianne Hough) leaves Tulsa, Oklahoma for Hollywood with big dreams and stars in her eyes.  Although she’s mugged shortly after arriving on The Strip, Drew (Diego Boneta) comes to her aid and helps get her a waitressing job at his workplace, the legendary nightclub The Bourbon Room. 
Meanwhile, The Bourbon Room’s owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his trusted assistant Lonny (Russell Brand) fret over the bar’s financial problems.  Dennis owes considerable back taxes.  The crusading Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of Los Angeles mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), identifies The Bourbon Room’s weakness as a means of shutting down a business she despises and improving her husband’s standing with major developers in an election year.

Dennis is counting on the revenue from the final performance by Arsenal to save his club, but he and the packed house wait for the scheduled concert at the whims of erratic front man and soon-to-be solo artist Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).  Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), Stacee’s manager, has his hands full with a star who’s lost in a haze of groupies and scotch and keeps a baboon in his posse.  Controlling Stacee’s image becomes more difficult when Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) conducts an interview with the disillusioned and possibly delusional rocker.

What carries the scent of danger in pop culture, at least to impressionable young listeners,  gradually gets commodified and repackaged for safe consumption.  In the case of bands whose music is featured in the film, think Twisted Sister, once a target of the Parents Music Resource Center, rather than Foreigner, Quarterflash, or, well, anyone else.  So it goes with the ROCK OF AGES songbook.  The sweaty soundtrack blaring from Camaros and the boomboxes at construction sites is made even slicker and more respectable for theatergoers visiting the stage and screen.  (Having read a brief overview of the play, some rougher plot points have also been altered and smoothed in the adaptation to film.)  The sex and suggestiveness is PG-13 friendly.  The studded leather wristbands and jackets are less signifiers of rebellion than bygone fashion statements.
In other words ROCK OF AGES filters rock and roll through AMERICAN IDOL and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE.  Instead of the latest batch of unknown hopefuls from across rural, suburban, and urban America belting out the hits and strutting their stuff, up-and-comers and certified stars take their turns at glorified karaoke accompanied by a few steps.  Director Adam Shankman and choreographer Mia Michaels, both of whom have served as SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE judges and choreographers, keep things safely within the actors’ ranges.  This can translate to editing of song performances that hack them to pieces, but the democratic spirit of the venture helps cover for the sometimes excessive division of labor.  
I’ll grant that what I’m describing likely sounds excruciating to some reading this, and I’ll make no claim that this approximates great cinema. Rather than comparing it to other movies, ROCK OF AGES most closely resembles the concession stand’s box of nachos slathered in plasticky melted cheese.  Of course it’s junk.  Still, ROCK OF AGES is so unpretentious about its aims and the performers are so game for what they surely knew would be this ridiculous that it’s hard to resist entirely.  

Cruise wears a devil’s head with protruding tongue codpiece that ranks among the most absurd accessories anyone’s ever worn.  He plays Stacee Jaxx with much darker tones than this glossy film is prepared to handle, yet he’s fascinating in embodying a superstar so removed from society that the ordinary rules of behavior are seemingly revoked.  In his single scene playing a Rolling Stone receptionist, T.J. Miller is very funny mirroring the audience’s amusement at how weird this film and Cruise’s character can be. Akerman demonstrates a fearless willingness to do anything for a laugh.

Defensible or not, the album-oriented rock standards are often a lot of fun to hear as they advance the meager plot.  In one of the funniest scenes REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is deployed to advance a relationship.  Mary J. Blige, who plays strip club owner Justice Charlier, tears through “Any Way You Want It”.  Overall the songs used feature strong melodies and are often creatively, if obviously, joined, such as when protesting churchgoers and rock fans alternate between “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “We Built This City”.  In that respect this jukebox musical might be more accurately labeled a cafeteria musical in that it takes power chords, verses, and choruses from various songs to build medleys instead of leaving the originals intact.  Using such judicious selectivity is probably the best way to approach ROCK OF AGES too.  Take what’s pleasurable and never mind the rest.    
Grade: B-

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