Friday, December 7, 2012

Rock Of Ages [film review]

Released theatrically in June; now available on all home video platforms

Full disclosure: musicals are so not my kind of thing - they're just far too inherently cheesy. Frankly, I'd rather watch an episode of the gawdawful Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than spend any more than the ten minutes I took to see what all the fuss was about with the horrid Glee. I do love 80s hard rock, though, which is why I subjected myself to a viewing of Rock Of Ages, the film based on the musical that premiered at a small club in Los Angeles in 2005 and went on to become a Broadway hit. Now, that last sentence might have you hung up on the irony of someone being a hair band fan, yet casting dispersions of fromage upon musicals. I'll be the first to acknowledge the less-than-dignified aspects of the genre, but it comes down to degrees of cheese, you see. Mock it all you want (and I'll admit that the visual components of a lot of the acts and some of the more sex-obsessed songs deservedly opened things up to plenty of ridicule), but I'll staunchly defend the musical merits, both in terms of technical ability on their instruments and songwriting skills, of the majority of the bands from the era. 

The film's screenplay honestly couldn't have taken more than a night for the writers to whip together. The characters are thinly drawn archetypes cribbed from the lyrics of songs that the film celebrates and yes, I get that one isn't looking to a film musical for character depth and engrossing story lines. Even still, both aspects of Rock Of Ages are astonishingly unimaginative. The film's set-up is right out of Poison's "Fallen Angel" song and video, as a young woman from the American Midwest named Sherrie (played by Julianne Hough) makes her way on a Greyhound bus out to L.A. in 1987 to find fame and fortune as a singer. She ends up getting proverbially used up and spat out, eventually resorting to working the pole for employment - I mean, it is straight out of the Poison video. Getting back to the bus ride set-up...that opening scene in the film establishes the massively campy exploits to follow, as the innocent Sherrie lovingly flips through her Lita Ford, Aerosmith, and Poison records before breaking into song with Night Ranger's "Sister Christian", still fighting its way back to respectability from the ironic usage of the track in Boogie Nights (although many would argue that it never had any to begin with). Soon, Sherrie's fellow passengers join her in rockin' out by singing along and bobbing their heads in time to the song. If you somehow haven't managed to crack up at the hilarious absurdity of the scene up to that point then the part with the little girl turning around in her seat and solo singing the "You'll be alright tonight" line is sure to do the trick - I was absolutely howling. Oh, did I mention that Sherrie's last name was "Christian"? How accommodating. Ms. Christian's name actually turns out to be a convenience two-for-one, as she is later serenaded with "Oh Sherrie" by Drew, her romantic interest in the film (played by Diego Boneta). It should come as little surprise that the romance subplot with the pair is woefully underwritten. Drew is an aspiring musician (naturally) who lands Sherrie a job as a waitress at the rock club he works at, The Bourbon Room. 

The Bourbon Room, a legendary and grimy rock venue modelled after L.A.'s Whisky A Go-Go, is the hub of the action for Rock Of Ages. If there were any more examples needed to support my assertion of this movie's half-assed writing then consider these other three unoriginal details from the story: the club is in financial dire straits and the only thing that can save it is the windfall from a show starring Stacee Jaxx (played by Tom Cruise), who got his start at the club playing shows with his now-massively popular band Arsenal; the club is also in the crosshairs of the ultra-conservative Patricia Whitmore (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) who, along with her church group, wants to clean up the sleazy Sunset Strip area where the venue is located; and shockingly, Patricia's husband (Mayor Mike Whitmore, played by Bryan Cranston) has his own set of kinky character flaws. 

Cruise, one of the very few positives involved with this film, is admirably gung ho as Jaxx. Decked out in long hair, leather, tattoos, and furs, Cruise appears to be channeling the spirits of Axl Rose and Bret Michaels, with demonstrations of hedonistic behaviour and amusing eccentricities, such as owning a pet baboon that accompanies him everywhere. The baboon, by the way, was responsible for the only laughs I had with this film, as opposed to at it. When it comes to pulling off the singing and performing requirements, Cruise does a surprisingly respectable job. His cocksure attitude and completely uninhibited stage moves play as believable and although his singing voice is a little on the thin side, I've certainly heard far worse (in this film, as a matter of fact). He also gamely takes on a very vocally demanding song in "Paradise City". I can't say that Cruise completely steers himself clear of the embarrassment that befalls everyone else in this camp-fest, however. I dare you to keep a straight face as he and Malin Akerman (playing a Rolling Stone reporter) copulate/interpretive dance while duetting on "I Want To Know What Love Is", or later on when he seduces Akerman's character again in a strip joint's private room area. The latter scene, another duet set to The Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane", makes the similarly staged scenes in Showgirls seem positively tasteful and restrained by comparison. You really have to wonder if Cruise was second-guessing his decision to sign on to the movie when you see him throwing himself around a stripper's pole and singing classically bad lyrics like "The bitch is hungry/She needs to tell/So give her inches/And feed her well" and Klaus Meine's high-pitched "Are you ready baby?" line. But again, kudos to him for taking on the acting challenge, throwing caution to the wind, and fully committing to the role, regardless of how daft he risked coming off. 

Rock Of Ages is a classic case of when bad movies happen to good and great actors. Along with Cruise, Cranston, and Zeta-Jones, Rock Of Ages features Alec Baldwin as Dennis Dupree, The Bourbon Room's crusty manager, and Paul Giamatti as Paul Gill, Jaxx's douchey manager. Both, wearing terrible wigs, are utterly wasted in their roles, to a degree where it's almost bizarrely admirable how botched the opportunity is by director Adam Shankman to have had two of the best actors on the planet appear in your film and not taken advantage of it. Giamatti mercifully only has a couple of lines to sing during the song "Here I Go Again" and acquits himself fairly well. Baldwin, however, has to sing way more than you'd like to hear - his voice is awful and the fact he "hated every moment of it" (as he told Total Film magazine of the singing portions) is not hard to pick up on. There's also a performance of "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" he does with Russell Brand's character that is amazingly bad. Talk about your "for the paycheck only" acting gigs. Speaking of Brand, I can't top this great line about his hair in the movie that Entertainment Weekly magazine came up with, so I'll just regurgitate it here: "It requires a certain cluelessness to take Russell Brand, who probably looked like a rock star at birth, and put him in a fake ebony shag that screams poseur". Indeed.

If you're in the market for some grade-A schlock that is guaranteed to leave you slack-jawed multiple times over its duration, then Rock Of Ages is your film. 

Rating: F