Rock of Ages, this week’s hair metal spandex singalong, asks a basic question: what’s the point of a musical? More specifically, it asks a pair of underlying questions about musicals: is enjoyment a worthy artistic goal? Is sentimental simplification acceptable in the name of fantasy and fun?
On one level Rock of Ages does to the metal years of the late eighties no more or less than what Singin’ in the Rain did to the twenties or Grease to the fifties or Moulin Rouge does to Golden Age Paris. Accusing these films of ignoring the racism, violence or barbaric dentistry of their era would be a little like marking off Peyton Manning’s greatness because he isn’t a very good tackler. It’s true, but it misses the point.
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On the other hand, how do you take the most hedonistic, polyamourous and misogynistic era of pop music and turn it into a musical with a female lead about multiple couples pursuing that one true love? And how do you create an atmosphere of self-destructive decadence in a movie in which no one even smokes? There’s a fly in this zeitgeist somewhere.
Rock of Ages casts sunny-eyed Millenials as broken-homed gen Xers. Accusations of being American Idol: Metal Night are, sadly, fairly accurate. Aspiring baby-faced metalhead Diego Boneta doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Axl Rose. Playing an Oklahoma Snow White who escapes to the bright lights of Los Angeles, Julianne Hough seems more like a girl who would listen to Madonna or Debbie Gibson, or Amy Grant and Stryper. In real life, she is Ryan Seacrest’s girlfriend. She looks it. She feels it. And she sings like it. Of the younger set, only Malin Akerman (Watchmen), as the Rolling Stone journalist Constance Sack, comes across as a natural candidate to be spread across the front hood of a Camaro.
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What saves the film, and ultimately makes it worth the view, is the great supporting cast. Russell Brand is either a choice so perfect that it’s obvious or a choice so obvious that it’s perfect. He’s teamed successfully with a camp Alec Baldwin as the owner of a Sunset Strip club on the tight rope of bankruptcy. It’s topped by Tom Cruise having an enormous amount of fun as rock legend Stacee Jaxx, an eighties action star playing himself as an eighties rock star. On a practical level, how do you hire leads that are so miscast but a supporting cast that’s right down to the last sprinkle of hairspray?
Is the music good? A better question: was the music good then? An even better question–is the music fun? On the last point, I’ll go with more “yes” than “no.” A cheeky busride rendition of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” sets the tone, giving you a good taste of director Adam Shankman flair for amusing camp. When it hits that point, it makes up for clunky editing and a story that’s blah. Rock of Ages isn’t a film I particularly respect. But I did enjoy it.
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