Rock of Ages actually works quite well as a microcosm of the eighties – in both good and bad ways. It is loud, entertaining, engaging, shallow, beautifully constructed, hypocritical, energetic, charming, tasteless and somehow strangely irresistible in places. While the movie doesn’t necessarily always work, it is a perfect piece of cultural counter-programming to the summer’s sporting events. Light, fun and just a little dazed and confused, Rock of Ages is self-aware enough that it never collapses under its own weight. While it’s unlikely to be remembered as the best of the summer, it is a charmingly cheesy (if occasionally clumsy) power ballad musical that does exactly what it says on the tin.
The eighties get a bit of a hard time from pop culture historians. They are frequently derided as “the decade that taste forgot”, which I find to be just a little unfair. I think that Miami Vice alone is an invaluable pop cultural artifact, a television show that favoured mood and ambiance over plot and character. Still, Rock of Ages revels in the delightful tastelessness of it all, pelting out jukebox hit after jukebox hit.
It lacks the wry and sly subversive streak of Adam Shankman’s best film, the musical Hairspray. While it doesn’t take itself too seriously, Rock of Ages feels like a far more conventional musical in terms of plotting and pacing. Still, Shankman has a knack for choreography and when Rock of Ages works – a powerhouse rendition of I Want to Know What Love Is in the trashiest manner possible, an unlikely duet of I Can’t Fight This Feeling (sadly distinct from David Hasselhoff’s Hooked on a Feeling) and a showstopping Anyway You Want It – it really works. While it does encounter some bumps in the road, it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be bothered by them.
The biggest problem with Rock of Ages is the two lead actors. While Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta can dance and sing with the best of them, they aren’t actors. As with Footloose, Hough shows potential, but she isn’t ready to support a big studio picture yet, and certainly not opposite a co-star with whom she has no chemistry. The scenes between the pair are easily the weakest of the film. Since they are the main characters, that causes considerable problems, especially during the first half.
However, once the second half rolls around, the film finds its groove. It helps that Shankman seems to realise that Hough and Boneta aren’t going to win Oscars, and instead expands his focus to a fine cast of supporting actors. Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Paul Giamatti can act, but the biggest surprise is that they can actually carry a tune – to the point where Cruise is so good that I have a bit of difficulty believing it’s him doing his vocal work. Of course, we know Catherine Zeta-Jones can sing, but it’s still great to have her back in a role that doesn’t ask for too much more than a bit of fun. Even Russell Brand is perfectly serviceable in his Russell Brand persona, although I think I heard him shift his regional accent slightly.
These veteran stars do a great job with their material. The movie doesn’t ask too much from any of them, but they seem to be enjoying themselves. Paul Giamatti is great as the executive “so oily that Exxon should consider buying shares in him.” Cruise proves that he has a wonderful knack for comic timing, even if he doesn’t quite steal the show as perfectly here as he did in Tropic Thunder. He channels the washed-up Jim Morrison-esque Stacey Jaxx remarkably well. When told that some people think his a narcissist who spouts nothing but nonsense, Cruise perfectly replies, “These people, who you speak of, do they even know themselves?” There’s even a nice tiny supporting role for the always awesome Bryan Cranston, who I am very glad to see getting his cinematic due of late.
The script and plotting is cheesy in the extreme. Then again, would it really be an eighties musical rock opera if it wasn’t? At times, the dialogue is so contrived it’s almost painful, with exposition delivered with little-to-no subtlety. In order to inform the audience of who Stacey Jaxx is, one character responds to news of his gig, “You mean the most unreliable man in Rock’n’Roll?” Again, this sort of thing would stop the movie dead, if it didn’t seem quite so self-aware. Singing the song that he wrote to impress his date, our plucky male lead belts out a few lines of Don’t Stop Believing, only to stop and explain, “it goes on and on and on and on…”
In fact, there is something vaguely cheeky about the movie’s seemingly earnest moral. Although the rock’n’roll sex icon Stacey Jaxx (who seems to provoke an… intense physical experience in women he his mere presence) is a bit obtuse, he isn’t by any measure the villain of the story. Nor is the man-child club owner played by Alec Baldwin. It’s the sleazy manager played by Paul Giamatti, of course, who shows up to tempt our leading lad into a life of selling-out and working for the man.
In a character establishing moment, the slimy agent extracts his fee from the nightclub, bankrupting it. The club owner is shocked. “I gave Stacey his first gig,” he utters, almost flabbergasted. The agent replies, “I made him his first million.” It’s very clear who we’re meant to be siding with. Indeed, Stacey’s existential angst and downward spiral of a career are ultimately deemed to be the responsibility of his manager, who promptly tries to transform the leading man into a Vanilla-Ice-style rapper.
Of course, part of this seems at least a little contradictory. After all, it’s implied that the sleazy manager has been with Stacey since the beginning. His “first million” would have to be relatively early in his career, and it’s implied that Stacey has enjoyed a long period of artistic integrity, with his decline as an artist coming only recently. Our two leads are avowed fans of Stacey, and it’s likely that many of those now accusing Stacey of having sold out would have bought albums produced by Stacey’s manipulative manager. In effect, it seems to undermine the argument. If, as is implied, Stacey sold out the moment that he signed his contract, then he never had any of the artistic integrity that his fans seem to cling to and that Rolling Stone attacks him for abandoning.
This might seem a tad hypocritical for the film to suggest. Indeed, this is a movie featuring a collection of classic rock anthems repurposed to fit around a cookie-cutter story. Many of the artists it seems to celebrate would have, in fact, “sold out” by allowing their music to be used in the film itself. However, it’s clear that Shankman’s film is in on the joke. When our lead character scores an opening gig, he’s told to perform “three original songs, no covers.” Alec Baldwin might as well wink at the camera. Of course it’s ironic – the movie doesn’t feature any original songs at all. After all, it does allow our leads to sing their own version of Jukebox Hero.
Another indication that Shankman and the musical are in on the gag comes later. During a tense stand-off with moral crusaders trying to kill rock’n’roll, those supporting the music take to the streets to chant We Built This City by Starship. It’s entirely impossible that the song was included without a hint of self-awareness. An “anthem” that seems to extol the virtues of independent rock music, it was produced by a band universally deemed to have “sold out” – to the point where the song has been named the worst song of the eighties and even the worst song of all time. There’s no way that the song was included without a hint of self-deprecating irony.
As an aside, and apropos of nothing, I do wonder how the internal mechanics of Rock of Ages work. I know it’s a musical, with people spontaneously breaking into song and stuff, but do people in the film realise that Stacey Jaxx is singing classic songs by real life artists? We see album covers for bands like Def Leppard during the film, implying that they still exist in this reality. So is it as simple as the fact that they exist, but never recorded Pour Some Sugar on Me? And since Anyway You Want It andDon’t Stop Believing feature heavily, does it imply that Journey were never that popular in this version of reality – as their most popular songs actually belonged to fictional artists? I know that I’m over-thinking it, but the metaphysics of it all interest me.
By the way, the movie does most of its musical sequences remarkably well, and I’m consistently impressed with how fluidly most of the hits were integrated into the admittedly simplistic story. In particular, reimagining Anyway You Want It as a song about “selling out” is actually remarkably clever and just a little bit subversive.
Rock of Ages doesn’t redefine the musical. It’s fairly conventional in plot and structure. However, if you can get swept up in the cheesiness of it all, it’s a solidly entertaining two hours of pop nostalgia.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | 1980s, Adam Shankman, alec baldwin, arts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Hasselhoff, Def Leppard, Diego Boneta, Hairspray, Julianne Hough, mary j blige, miami vice, paul giamatti, rock of ages, russell brand, Shopping, sport, tom cruise, United States