I’m still baffled to this day why Warner Brothers confidently bet so much money on the 80’s jukebox musical Rock of Ages. It wasn’t an unwarranted call on their part considering the recent success of Mamma Mia, a movie consisting of only disco hits from ABBA which grossed $600 million dollars on its comparatively large budget. The difference is while that film is equally silly and broad, the appeal is that it can be a bonding experience between mothers and daughters to share the sounds of their youth with a new generation. I’ve seen Rock of Ages multiple times and on Broadway and I still couldn’t tell you who the target demo is besides myself. It’s not a family show considering how much grimy bathroom sex plays a role in the storyline and it’s not that recognizable as I have yet to catch word of a local high school production. Warner Brothers was banking on the high profile draws of Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones but mainly Tom Cruise as lead singer Stacee Jaxx and an audience’s nostalgia for 80’s music. The problem at least with that last part is that’s very, very incorrect. People have a love/hate relationship with that era of rock just like this movie is playing on the level of good/bad campy fun. Why Rock of Ages was such a financial flop is the marketing didn’t get across how nonsensical this movie is, instead the trailer presents an epic air and pushes the star quality of Cruise. It’s not epic, it’s karaoke on a soundstage and I’m here to tell you that it is the most fun karaoke I’ve ever experienced. I want to defend this movie no went out to see (aside from the two friends I dragged with me) and why it deserves way more appreciation than it has received.
To begin with the live musical, it is a show that is very self aware. Still the only musical on Broadway ever to serve jello shots, their goal was for the audience to be as drunk and wild as if they were partying at The Bourbon Room in 1987. They’re baiting you to sing along as narrator Lonny breaks the 4th wall, wisecracking about big hair and even bigger boobs. They know how over sexed, over masculine and overkill that decade was and they parody it well. All this fun and mayhem is nearly impossible to transfer to film as it’s not as quite an interactive medium. On stage you can play scenes big and cartoonish so those back of the audience out-of-towners can get a kick out of the stereotypical German accents and men in neon leotards. Inherently you have to tone this down for the adaptation but what I find makes Rock of Ages the movie so enjoyable is they really didn’t know how. The plot that nominally transfers over is that the rock n roll sleaze of the Sunset Strip is trying to be extinguished with the stronghold being the legendary music venue The Bourbon Room which is run by Dennis and his right hand man Lonny. They are in need for music’s biggest star Stacee Jaxx and his band Arsenal to play a final gig there to boost revenue and save the establishment. Caught in the crossfire are two young, smitten singers, Drew and Sherrie, both with dreams of making it in the biz. Aside from that basic premise and a plethora of song mash ups, there’s major overhaul as character traits and plot elements alter drastically for the big screen adaptation.
The most notable/important/exciting adjustment and what sold me on this whole movie is that of Stacee Jaxx specifically the Tom Cruise interpretation of this character. In the stage production, that role is much less a lead and more of a device to move both The Bourbon Room and the romantic plot line further. He’s a doofus, Dee Snyder looking guy who is rightfully laughed out of town (or fleeing to the border on statutory rape charges) by the end while in the movie he is a worshiped rock god so out of touch with reality that you’d think he was a Scientologist. I’m fine with this updating to make the new Stacee more like an alcoholic dazed Brett Michaels because Cruise is personifying those off kilter eccentricities he was known for by 2012. He creates this silent, brooding, bat shit crazy artist who weaves seamlessly into the film. His character is a great jumping off point for where this movie plays with its reality, at times taking itself too seriously, particularly with the Drew/Sherrie romance as they constantly sing longingly about each other either at the Hollywood sign or in the rain. It’s contrasted with the strangest choreography with the awkward fish like moves by Catherine Zeta-Jones and other angry church going, Stacee Jaxx hating women with “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and the mesmerizing hip sways between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand in their love ballad “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.” The tone is constantly drifting in and out of “we know this ridiculous” and “this is a real emotional beat” which leads to its own laughable fascination.
My stance is overall this movie wants to be campy but not cartoony. That’s why it cuts out all the hippie elements from Dennis’ backstory and of the city planner/protestor Regina as well as the German developers condensing them into the more believable, conservative politician Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Patty (Zeta-Jones). Still, from the opening number with Sherrie (Julianne Hough) singing “Sister Christian” on the bus ride to LA and every passenger including the driver joining in, you know you’re locked in for a pretty illogical but poppy adventure. You have an entire sex scene between Stacee and Rolling Stone writer Constance (Malin Akerman) that includes Cruise singing into her panties and bra as they climax with their clothes on to “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Also there’s a monkey. The film version felt compelled to add a monkey. Almost because Cruise is playing it so subdued as he muses over “Wanted Dead or Alive” everyone else has to match that level of sensibility even when you have nuns and groupies belting protest songs against each other in the streets (“We Built This City”/”We’re Not Gonna Take It”) as a manic Will Forte dashes between the two.
There’s the perfect amount of actually funny writing with some of the best lines going to Paul Giamatti playing Stacee’s manager Paul Gill (“I wish the true part were falser”) and aging club owner Dennis (“Doesn’t anyone just want to work in the bar industry anymore”) but also the unintentional hilarity that comes from the movie hounding you with songs which is most of the second act as “Here I Go Again” flows into “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” then “Anyway You Want It” with not a moment to catch your breath. There’s the overwhelming charisma of the supporting cast which is crucial as the leads of Hough and Diego Boneta fall as flat as Cruise’s dad abs. The enjoyment of the actors emanates off the screen as they seem to be having a grand time making this expensive musical that probably included nice paychecks and high quality craft services. There’s a perfect balance of everything going right while obviously going completely wrong as they’re performing for no one. Giamatti’s poor vocals and Cruise’s faux cool hand gestures and poses are half in on the joke yet barreling forward with wholehearted sincerity.
My plea is that when I say I love Rock of Ages, I don’t want to be shot dirty looks. People assume it’s subpar Journey covers presented in a cheesy, contemporary Broadway fashion and they may be true but what’s the harm in that? This to me is Showgirls level bombastic fare that at every turn you’re bewildered by the tenacity of the performances and filmmaking of this $75 million dollar movie that would only make up slightly over half its budget. The tagline promises “Nothing But A Good Time” and it delivers on that 110%. There’s cult worthy status enjoyment here as you ask “why is there an unconvincing gay subplot?” and “why did they put so much pink lipgloss on Drew?” These irrational inquiries are part of the fun of watching. I just want everyone collectively to give this movie the chance it never got to show how much of a ridiculous romp through the 80’s it can be. If Cinefamily starts programming Rock of Ages sing-a-longs then I know I’ve done something worthwhile with my life.