Sunday, June 17, 2012

Multiple Paragraph Movie Review: Rock of Ages

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

I saw the stage show of Rock of Ages a couple months back and had a blast, with the full knowledge that it was a weak plot and story held together tenuously at best, but all that was blown out of the water by the energy of the cast, the enthusiasm of the live crowd and, of course, my sheer, unadulterated love for the music at its core. For the film adaptation, my expectations were extremely tempered since the stuff I dug about the play is impossible to replicate on screen (I saw it at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday in a theater with about a dozen people, none of whom besides me I expect could have sung an entire Motley Crue album word for word); I figured I'd spend a couple hours listening to my favorite hair metal anthems and ignore the rest. I'm thrilled to report that the Rock of Ages movie took those expectations and blew them out of the water.

It's the perfect stage-to-movie adaptation in that it keeps the character dynamics and plot points that are pretty universal, torpedoes the stuff that would be diminished without that live interaction, then seamlessly inserts new stuff without overwhelming the framework; most importantly, regardless of what got kept or junked, Rock of Ages the movie maintains the heart of Rock of Ages the play: the look at a period in time and a lifestyle with tongue firmly in cheek that says "we're not going to idealize this stuff, because a lot of it was pretty rough, but damn was it fun anyway." The soul of hair metal! My hat's off to Justin Theroux and company on their script (and of course it would be Justin Theroux who could make this work) and especially to director Adam Shankman. He fully embraces the stuff he's able to do in a film that couldn't be done on stage with mash-ups, montages and more fully-realized sets for the big musical numbers. I feel like when a Broadway show gets made into a movie the directors often get sheepish and focus too much on making the plot more "Hollywood" and not enough on using the shiny tools at their disposal to enhance what they've already got, so thumbs up again, Mr. Shankman.

I was also concerned about Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, both because his performance had been hyped beyond belief and because the character underwent a fairly significant change between versions (in the play he's a morally bankrupt poser, in the movie he's a more tortured but ultimately virtuous real deal rock star). I need not have worried, because film Stacee is a great character (and much better suited for a cinematic story where the characters need to be at least a bit more fleshed out; again, the changes in this Rock of Ages weren't arbitrary, they were thought out and calculated for a different medium--what a concept!) and Cruise pours himself into the role with a fervor I'd most closely compare to his turn in Tropic Thunder (also written by Theroux), where he last reinvented himself. He's able to make Stacee hilarious in his excess, believable as a guy with issues without sacrificing the comedy, and every bit as big a deal and presence as the story requires him to be--and the dude can sing!

One of the big knocks I saw in reviews of this movie were that the two leads, Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, cast primarily for their singing and dancing ability, dragged the action down with a lack of acting skills, and I'd totally disagree. Boneta certainly won't be doing Shakespeare anytime soon, but who cares? He's plenty charismatic and has the necessary pipes to hit the big musical numbers. Hough actually can act; she has a real magnetism to her and just as with the Footloose remake is able to create enough chemistry with her more wooden co-star for both of them, which is pretty important here given that Drew and Sherrie's romance, cheesy as it may be, is central to the whole enterprise. I really cared about them (I'm a sap, whatever) and was rooting for them to achieve their dreams, which is more than I can say for quite a few of the protagonists I've encountered in better reviewed films of late.

Besides, any deficiencies, real or imagined, in the acting of the young leads is more than made up for by the veteran and amazing remainder of the ensemble. Most pleasant surprise? Catherine Zeta-Jones vamping it up to high heck and looking like she's having a blast as the crusading mayor's wife out to stamp out rock and roll (a new character not in the play, as--to really run this point into the ground--they're great about eliminating the roles that wouldn't carry over well and adding in ones they need to flesh out the story they're telling). Russell Brand finds his groove probably the easiest as Bourbon Club manager Lonny, a Russell Brand role if ever there was one, and he and Alec Baldwin's Dennis Dupree fill the comedic duo slot nicely (if you were curious, Brand can actually sing, Baldwin cannot, both work for what they need to do). Mary J. Blige can't really act, but that's not really a big issue, as you pretty much know what you're getting when you cast Mary J. Blige in a movie. Paul Giamatti and Malin Akerman are crucial in providing the antagonist (the German land developer from the play is out, Giamatti's sleazeball agent is in) and a love interest to humanize Stacee (I had no idea Akerman could nail physical comedy so well). Bryan Cranston and Will Forte round out the cast with relative bit parts they seize nonetheless. Also of note: Kevin Nash is one of Stacee's silent bodyguards and rocks his one line in "Wanted Dead or Alive"--you go, Diesel!

I've rambled on about this movie more than most (hence the multiple paragraph review) but that's because it really came out of nowhere and grabbed me the way only a flick you go into expecting very little can (probably the last time I reacted like this was Rent, another musical interestingly enough). The poor reviews I've read criticize that Rock of Age's can't decide if it wants to be a total send-up of the era or something weighty, but I think they're missing the point; hair metal is music that doesn't take itself too seriously or not seriously enough, it really just doesn't think much at all about anything but "this sounds cool" ("Nothin' But a Good Time" is the third song in the movie) and that's what Rock of Ages is. I stick by the praise I doled out for the acting, the directing and particularly the craft in the writing as far as shaping source material with a deftness missing far too often with these kinds of endeavors, but at the end of the day, I don't think Rock of Ages is setting out to win any awards, change any lives or make any grand statements, it just wants to give you two hours of kick ass music with a fun story that lets you leave the stress of the real world behind and get lost in the leather and hairspray.

Rock on.