You only need one word to sum up the appeal of Rock Of Ages – big. Big hair, big music, big costumes, big stars. Subtlety, you may have guessed already, doesn’t live here. Fittingly for a film that celebrates the 80s, Rock Of Ages feels like a product of that decade’s most bombastic and pitch-perfect film, RoboCop, something Paul Verhoeven might have included in those faux adverts sandwiched between bouts of violence and Jesus parallels. It’s like RoboCop’s 6000 SUX car, a supped-up, high-performing behemoth. And the Warner Bros. marketing team might want to steal that car’s tag line: big is most definitely back.
The thing is, RoboCop’s writer Ed Neumeier was joking, ridiculing the excess of that decade while revelling in it (a high-wire act that few films have walked so well). Rock Of Ages doesn’t want to joke. Not very often, anyway. Most of the time it wants to be very serious about how great 80s rock music is, like an over-eager fan shouting in your ear: ‘Isn’t this song great? Isn’t other music rubbish?’ It’s frustrating, because when it’s in on the joke, the film becomes what you want it to be: a celebration of what was so great about the 80s, undercut with how ridiculous it all looks now.
Case in point: Rock Of Ages opens with its heroine sitting on a bus to Hollywood, pulling out a childhood photo, reading a heart-felt message on the back about following her dream, and then nodding reassuringly to herself. Before we can wonder how seriously to take this, coach passengers burst sporadically into song, and it seems like the film is telling us: not very seriously please.
In this moment, barely two minutes in, Rock Of Ages holds a terrific promise in its hands: artificial melodrama played for laughs with a thumping soundtrack and Tom Cruise waiting in the wings. Only, director Adam Shankman isn’t brave enough to deliver on this, and his screenwriters (including Tropic Thunder’s Justin Theroux and the Rock Of Ages stage show’s Chris D’Arienzo) don’t give him enough opportunity to repeat the trick.
They give him plenty of melodrama – in the form of a bland romance between said small town girl (Julianne Hough’s Sherrie Christian) and Diego Boneta’s rock-star-wannabe Drew Boley – yet very little laughs. And they give him lots of musical set pieces. Like, every five minutes, lots.
Rock Of Ages is so in thrall to including every memorable rock ballad that it barely pauses for breath between each one. It’s like an action film that moves from one shoot-out to the next; great in theory, and great in practice if you have a story to justify it, or the style to pull it off. But Rock Of Ages works in reverse – it creates a set of characters and a workmanlike story to service the songs, when what you really want is songs to tell a story.
Shankman is a choreographer-turned-director who’s a better choreographer than he is a director. Among his many gigs was choreographing Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, and you kind of wish he’d paid more attention then to Joss Whedon (it’s too late now; after The Avengers everyone will be doing it). Whedon used song and dance interludes as character revelations. Rock Of Ages uses them to fill the running time.
And Shankman shoots everything up close and personal, as if he’s trying to give you the best seat at the musical where you can read exactly what’s on everyone’s face. In an ideal world, that’s the point of making a film from a musical, surely? You can make big moments from the little things you can’t do on stage. Rock Of Ages teases us with a scattering of little moments – a nicely judged montage flashback breaks up one routine, Cruise offering up a crossword answer another – but they’re only brief moments of invention.
Thank God, then, for Cruise as rock God Stacee Jaxx. When he’s on, he gives Rock Of Ages a Spinal Tap-style push over the edge, a frisson that you wish could carry over to the rest of the film. His duet with Malin Akerman’s rock journalist is what you want the rest of the film to be – funny, sexually charged, and, like a perfect song, leaving you wanting more. Cruise just has to remove his sunglasses to create a wave of excitement. Mary J. Blige gets half a dozen song-and-dance numbers yet generates barely a ripple.
It’s inspired casting, especially when you consider Cruise’s next role is the about-face of Jack Reacher, a killing machine of few words next to Stacee Jaxx’s deranged, Axl Rose-styled showman. If only Shankman had carried this inspiration further down the cast list. Rock Of Ages is so tame for so much of its two hours that it needs the kind of spark Cruise brings.
Alec Baldwin’s been a comedic goldmine on 30 Rock, but he can’t do off-kilter. And his club owner Dennis Dupree is crying out for off-kilter to bring him to life. The film needs a lightning rod to bring it to life when Cruise isn’t on screen, a Will Ferrell (apparently considered before Baldwin) to liven up the show. Instead we get Russell Brand in a Brummie accent. And someone needs to call Bryan Cranston’s agent and tell him to say no just once. His career renaissance since Malcolm In The Middle is a thing to behold and be grateful for, but overkill, as Rock Of Ages shows, can be a killer.
Those moments to which Rock Of Ages aspires, the unabashed enjoyment you get from listening to great music and forgetting that anything else matters, they’re fleeting. We get one at the end, delivered with a Cruise mega-watt smile, but that’s small reward. Rock Of Ages is busy telling us how good rock music is, but it never really shows us. It has one character judge being in a boy band as less morally acceptable than taking your clothes off for money.
Trouble is, Rock Of Ages is that very thing it lambasts. It’s a harmless pop song, all gloss and polish, when what it really needs to be is a raunchy, smirking rock song. It’s like Ozzy Osborne on an episode of Glee. Big, sure, but not all that funny.