June 18, 2012

MOVIES: Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012)

Rock of Ages is not a good movie, but it is bad in fascinating ways. It's a movie that comes achingly close to being a deliciously cheesy entertainment, but at nearly every point where a choice had to be made -- casting, writing, directing -- I found myself wincing as the wrong choice was made again.

There are a dozen short essays waiting to be written about this movie. We could ask why Hollywood persists in casting musicals with movie stars who can sing a little instead of with singers (and when we do get singers in this movie, they're not rock singers). We could talk about the differences in performing styles between rock and musical theatre, and how the clash between the two makes the successful "rock musical" an impossible dream.

We could wonder whether it will ever again be possible to watch a Tom Cruise performance without reading it as commentary on Cruise's own persona/image. (Cruise actually gives the best performance in the movie, a sly and witty take on a guy desperately clinging to his celebrity. And he pulls off the singing, too; if he's auto-tuned, it's done well enough that it isn't noticable.) Or we could snicker at the movie's insistence that 80s rock is somehow more authentic, less a product of the music industry factory, than other pop music of its era.

The story is paper-thin, centered on the bland coupling of Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, both trying to make it in LA as singers in 1987, as the hair-metal era is coming to an end. (Hough's character is named Sherrie Christian, so that we can get a performance of "Sister Christian;" "Oh Sherrie" must have been cut from the film fairly late, because you  occasionally hear bits of it in the underscore.) They both work at the Bourbon Room, a Sunset Strip club managed by Alec Baldwin and his assistant Russell Brand.

You've also got Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter (she gets the "remove glasses, let down hair, my god you're beautiful!" moment), Mary J. Blige as a good-hearted strip club manager, Catherine Zeta-Jones as an anti-rock crusader, Paul Giamatti as a sleazy manager/agent, and of course, Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, the biggest name in rock. None of them are asked to deliver any more than a one-note performance, and (with the exception of Cruise) that's all any of them give.

The music is a collection of 80s rock standards, but they're so badly chopped up and mashed together that most of them don't survive, and they're sung by people with no understanding of the proper vocal style. The simplest performances have the most impact -- Zeta-Jones leading her army of church women in "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (which she sells convincingly, despite not even remotely being a rock singer), a not terribly well sung but spectacularly unexpected version of "Can't Fight This Feeling" (about which saying more would be a cruel piece of spoilage).

The movie never quite works, but I'm glad to have seen it; I'll take an interesting failure over run-of-the-mill dull any day.

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