- SXSW 2014
Adapting Broadway musicals to film is a slippery slope. Either it holds true enough to the live performance, and suspends enough belief, that fans run out of the theater eager for more (like the 2002 adaptation of “Chicago.”) Or, it tries so hard to be a musical that it feels like watching celebrities doing karaoke. Unfortunately for “Rock of Ages,” it’s the latter.
“Rock of Ages” suffers from Too Much syndrome. Performance is the cornerstone of musical theater, but when every song is sung, and each scene has a performance, it feels like two hours and three minutes of filmed karaoke rather than musical theater. It probably has a similar amount of songs as any other Broadway musical, but suffers because none of it was written for film. And that’s the point, I know. But when so much of the music in film has so little to do with the plot (if you can call it that), it feels disconnected and superfluous. They could have easily used some of the songs as incidental music rather than every song being a performance. I think the film would have benefited from that greatly. In fact, the entire time I was in the theater I kept thinking this was a rock and roll version of Karaoke Revolution that got forced onto the big screen. In fact, if they edited this into a video game I bet it’d be a big hit. And the singing would be better.
The two leads, Julianne Hough (Sherrie) and Diego Boneta (Drew) are completely forgettable. Their love evolves too quickly, and all of their fantastic memories of love and music are crammed into a montage that should have represented months but supposedly lasted three days. Drew’s reason for giving up on her really undercuts that true romance of theirs; if it was more like the Broadway version, where Sherrie did hook up with Stacee, maybe Drew’s decision would make more sense. The climax of their love story, and the film’s story, happens so early that it’s hard to care about anything that follows afterwards.
Sherrie and Drew become the B story, and Stacee Jaxx takes over. Which may have been for the best, seeing as the leads were so totally uninteresting. When the movie starts, and the background characters on the bus have nicer voices than Sherrie, you know you’re in for a long evening. And beyond that, Sherrie’s story ultimately had so little impact on the plot of the film that you can’t help wondering why she was even there. Was she just a vehicle for Drew’s heart-broken push into fame? In the Broadway version, she leaves L.A. and Drew follows, realizing that they don’t need fame to be happy. They end up in Glendale raising a family. As hetero-normative as that is, the Broadway ending actually feels much more satisfying than the sudden shift to a big production at the Hollywood Bowl with un-broken-up Arsenal. The mayor’s wife feels like an afterthought, and she probably was, seeing as that character didn’t exist in the Broadway version. Her performances are part of pop-and-rock mashups that are so atrocious that I actually remember seeing a couple leave the theater.
The only actor that seems to move around comfortably in this world of sex, drugs and rock and roll (though there is a noticeable lack of sex or drugs on screen) is Russell Brand. But that may be just because that’s essentially who he is in real life. Every other actor feels completely out of place or wasted, like Bryan Cranston’s practically nonexistent role as an ineffectual mayor. Seeing him in uncompromising positions with his secretary is entertaining, but ultimately, a waste of screen time. It is very clear Catherine Zeta-Jones is uncomfortable in those skirt suits, and Alec Baldwin is completely out of place and hardly believable as Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree. Will Forte is relegated to a throw-away television reporter role, which is a shame, because he could have been used for so much more and made the film so much better (a southern rocker with a hint of his Ted Turner impression from “Conan,” perhaps).
Tom Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx was by far the best part of the film, even if the character was so comically stereotypical that it’s hard to root for him to do the right thing. He’s almost unbearable to watch at some points, when he stumbles across a woman that supposedly has no sexual desire for him until he flashes his rapey eyes at her and way they go. But Cruise pulls off a swagger and disposition that is engaging, just as you’d expect from a sex-rock-god of 80s rock. (Side note: in the Broadway version, he ends up a washed-up has-been accused of statutory rape that flees to Uruguay. Fun!) He saves the bar, I guess, but it doesn’t really matter.
There are no stakes in this movie, just jukebox musical numbers and a plot even more threadbare than Stacee Jaxx’s assless chaps. And unlike the Broadway version, where German developers want to introduce “cleaner living” into the area, the movie’s ultimate motivation is a college girl who hooks up with a rocker and wants revenge … for some reason.
I watched “Rock of Ages” expecting to have fun. But my short bouts of laughter didn’t come from the movie being enjoyably funny, and were instead ways to dispel the tangible feeling of awkwardness as the movie completely deflated about halfway through. If you want to have an enjoyable experience with this movie, just buy the soundtrack. Or better yet, dig out your 80s rock records and listen to those instead.