The modern jukebox musical is here to stay. Broadway purists can either fight this continued re-appropriation of fizzy, carbonated songs and their respective eras like some kind of theatre plague, or they can embrace the Jersey Boy Within as a necessary evil of a medium that thrives on pre-stamped mass appeal. And heck, there’s always sport to be had from some good-natured retrospection, from asking why we worshipped these songs so.
Sometimes, as in the hair-raising hair-metal odyssey Rock of Ages (which debuted in Los Angeles in 2006 before jumping to Broadway and a blockbuster touring production), the jukebox does all the heavy lifting for you.
Set to a bludgeoning mullet-mania soundtrack, the musical embraced its own hoariness, with fourth-wall demolition, audience participation and a backup band placed right there on the stage, giant subwoofers and all.
Rock of Ages was an admission that the entire enterprise is pure processed performance-cheese — because it’s a lot harder to maintain audience interest with just a treacly story and a chum bucket of ’80s songs. (Full disclosure: I have viewed numerous YouTube clips of the musical but have not taken in the entire show.)
I think the secret to the show’s success with audiences is that Chris D’Arienzo, who wrote the stage production’s original book and shares screenplay credit on the new film with Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, doesn’t really believe in the power of rock. He’s been quoted saying that hair metal was favored by those who would beat him up in high school, which may be why the original show thrives off self-deprecation — and really, there’s no way you can channel Starship’s “We Built This City” as a protest anthem with a straight face.
Unless, it seems, you are part of the A-list cast for the film of “Rock Of Ages”, which has applied a thick sheen of hair polish to an idea that really, really didn’t need that special Hollywood touch. Yes, I know the whole thing is set on the Sunset Strip. Nevertheless, here the camera adds ten pounds of unwanted Serious, Dramatic Weight.
Drew (Diego Boneta) wants to rock; Sherrie (Julianne Hough) wants to sing. They toil away as wait staff in the Bourbon Room nightclub, until marquee rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) shows up for a one-off gig and kick-starts the Journey-filled journey: Sherrie to a strip club, Stacee to true love, Drew to a record-label-approved boy band. Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones high-kicks while belting “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in a church pew, as Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand go full power ballad on each other. Paul Giamatti wears a Mario mustache, a monkey named Hey Man throws things at people and two hours feels like three.
There are moments that still recognize how silly the whole enterprise is: a bus full of strangers head-bobs along to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” in the opening number (“You’re motor-ing / What’s … your … price … for flight?”), or an unseen, transparently karaoke-quality backup chorus accompanies Drew while he pours his heart out to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. And really, Tom Cruise’s entire tattooed, shirtless drugged-up performance is the same brand of campy bliss the rest of the movie should have been practicing.
But that’s not what we get when Cruise leaves the screen. There’s a sneaking suspicion that director Adam Shankman (who did a perfectly fine job with “Hairspray”) would like us to take this thing seriously as a story, or seriously as an expression of musical liberation, or as … something, anyway. Gone are the audience asides, the grins and the bar-band aesthetic. In is the arena-rock belief that electric guitars and black T-shirts can change the world. And the atrocious three-part harmonies don’t help, either.
Shankman has taken a giddy, kitschy, glam-happy stage musical and morphed it into a plastic, airbrushed movie that strives for straight-faced acceptance. It’s as if he pulled a reverse Xanadu. (Is there a term for that? Udanax?)
Lament the continued demise of the “true” musical if you must. But remember not to blame the jukebox. Instead, look to those who revere the jukebox like a god, those who see even the jukebox’s most heavy-handed, overplayed tracks as tools of genuine, straight-faced uplift, and ask: What’s … your … price … for flight?
“Rock of Ages” opens June 15, 2012 in movie theatres throughout the area.
Rock Of Ages
Directed by Adam Shankman
Screenplay by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb
Based on the stage musical by Chris D’Arienzo
Starring Julliane Hough, Diego Boneta and Tom Cruise
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin