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Where Did “Rock of Ages” Go Wrong? Let Me Count the Ways – Geek Girl Navigating the World
It’s official. Rock of Ages was a huge bomb this summer. New Line Cinema is still probably reeling from the shock and I’m pretty sure that there are quite a few people out in Hollywood who are trying to figure out where, exactly, it all went wrong.
I was actually one of the few people who did go and see the movie. For me, it was mostly curiosity. “Rock of Ages” features music that I grew up hearing, most of it on cassette tapes that various family members had purchased. I’ve seen documentaries about the Parents Music Resource Center and the resulting dustup at Congressional hearings that had an odd side-effect of making John Denver seem like a supremely cool guy. For those that may be utterly clueless to what I’m referencing there, Mr. Denver got up and spoke out about the rights of the artist to express themselves and maintain the integrity of their work without fearing censorship. Yes. That John Denver. The “Rocky Mountain High” dude. Seriously. I am not making this up.
I wanted to see what would happen when a musical got a hold of that music and turned into a big stage spectacle with some kind of plot. The music was already performed as huge stage spectacles when it was popular and I figured there would be a whole lot of white-washing and sanitizing going on before it made it into a musical that would be screened on American theaters.
Before we go any further into this, I should probably note a couple of things. First of all, I’m not actually that big of a fan of musicals. I don’t hate them. I just prefer my musicals to be of the darker and more twisted variety, things like “Chicago” and “Sweeney Todd” make it into my movie collection. I do love “The Wizard of Oz”, and, really, who doesn’t? I still also maintain that my favorite horror movie of all time is “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” No, not “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “Willy Wonka”, the one that had Gene Wilder. If you’re confused why I would consider that a horror movie, think really, really hard about that scene in the tunnel with the boat. Scared yet? If you’re not, then think about the end, in Wonka’s office. Willy Wonka is the orignal Bag of Cats crazy guy, and that performance is so incredibly made of awesome my vocabulary skills utterly devolve when I try to express my Geeky joy.
The second thing I really need to disclose is that I am not a big fan of song remakes. There are a few that added something to the original and made it something new and amazing. I love what Billy Dean did with “We Just Disagree”, I’m a huge fan of “Dancing in the Moonlight” by Toploader, and Daredevil Squadron’s version of “Little Lion Man” makes me insanely happy. When Brooks & Dunn redid “My Maria” they made that song great. The original 70s version seems sad and a little listless in comparison. That said, for every fantastic remake of a song, there are dozens more that are just atrocious. Tiffany should never have touched “I Think We’re Alone Now” and I’d like Sheryl Crow to be kept away from other people’s songs forever, thanks. “Sweet Child O’Mine” was horrifying enough, but the massacre she perpetrated on Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest” made my not so inner music loving soul just crawl weeping into a corner to rock and mutter incoherently. It should not be any great surprise that I really dislike “Glee.” I tried watching it. I couldn’t stand it. That’s enough said about that.
So, I went with a friend to go and see “Rock of Ages.” It’s not a horrible movie. I could see where they were going with it. It’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Given, though, my penchant for old, bad sci-fi and horror movies, and the fact that I own and enjoy watching “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, I realize that’s a pretty extensive range of comparison. Mostly, I would have to qualify it pretty solidly in the category of Meh.
Marketing was mostly poured into the novelty of Tom Cruise singing and heavily advertising the fact that he did sing without ever once actually showing him singing in any of the trailers. As a Geek who loves movies, especially comic book and action movies, I was immediately suspicious. All of the articles and interviews released prior to the movie’s debut heavily praised Cruise’s singing ability. Unfortunately, people, especially people on the internet, can say anything that they want. Proof was not forthcoming, which built my skepticism.
Promotional materials for “Rock of Ages” featured the same video and movie clips and the same bare handful of stills. Movie audiences, at this point, have come to hunt down long form trailers on the Internet for themselves. They expect to be teased and dazzled constantly, right up until opening night. Scraps of information get filtered through magazines and talk shows and websites in a big build to the night when finally, finally we can go and see the movie. “Rock of Ages” played their hand very close to the vest, which, I think, was probably a fairly big factor in hurting them. A movie like that needs to have a better marketing campaign to get kids who never really listened to Hair Metal to want to see it and their parents who don’t really want to admit they listened to Hair Metal to leave the kids at home and go see it. When a movie depends on recreating a particular cultural scene, they have to appeal to the nostalgia associated with that scene to really be successful. It certainly needed to have more going for it then, “Hey, look, we got Tom Cruise to sing. You remember him, right?”
I wasn’t sure what to expect, though I was hoping it would be better than being subjected to a lousy cover band with delusions of grandeur at local open air festival. The movie had a couple of things going for it, mostly, in my mind, the fact that Russel Brand was in it as an all-purpose sleazy club monkey on call and Paul Giamatti playing an oily manager.
Of course, everyone knows by now that Tom Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx. Personally, I think they did a good job in terms of the musical casting. Cruise’s vocal range is well suited to the songs they had him sing, especially “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” He’s adequate to the job and he gives enough to the performance to make it fun to watch. Still, it’s impossible to separate the fact that it is Tom Cruise belting out Def Leppard, so you never really forget that he’s supposed to be Stacee Jaxx and, sadly, that disbelief never gets suspended enough for that to happen.
Part of the problem is that you can really see what Cruise was trying to portray as Stacee. Cruise strikes all the right poses and wears a convincing set of fake tattoos. He wears all the clothes and has the hair and eyeliner going on, but every time he steps into a scene he effects a particular, characteristic walk that came straight from Axl Rose 101. When Axl Rose used that walk, it was a slinking, nearly boneless swagger that was as disturbing as it was compelling. The only one that I’ve seen come anywhere even close to pulling off a similar mannerism (and please don’t shoot me for the sacrilege here, this is my opinion after all), is Scott Weiland. They aren’t identical walks, but they’re very, very close relatives of each other. When Cruise tries to do it, the walk is less Rock God Power Swagger and more Too Drunk to Stand or Walk. A walk like that requires a specific male body type that verges heavily on dangerously unhealthy serially deprived of money and food androgyny. Tom Cruise is ripped. His workouts leading up to this movie must have had workouts. So, he has the raw masculinity to pull off being a Rock God, but he doesn’t quite fit the look that was prevalent at the time. Remember, most of those guys were wearing more hair product and makeup than the women flocking to see them and their girlfriend’s closets were perfectly acceptable means of procuring stage wear. The Too Drunk walk could absolutely work for a character like Stacee Jaxx, but coupled with the weirdly focused intensity Cruise gave him to make him seem like an even odder duck, it went slightly off the mark into “How do they cover up what a freak this guy is?” territory.
I was happily surprised by Alec Baldwin as club owner Dennis Dupree in the movie. He was both funny and dedicated to his role as an aging guy who still loves where he is in life enough that he has yet to grow truly jaded. Dupree hates hiring singers to work in his bar, but he always seems to end up doing just that. It exasperates him, but he’s accepted it as the risk he runs for having a bar on the Sunset Strip. He revels in his role as a behind the scenes guy giving breaks to up and coming bands while still trying to pull in acts that will bring in money.
I’m not sure, however, that Julianne Hough was the best choice for the role of Sherrie Christian. She had the right small town girl next door look for the part and she didn’t do a terrible job singing. Actually, she’s a decent singer. But, if you’re making a movie with music like that, then you need a woman who can sing with the same range and vocal force that Lita Ford, Joan Jett, or Pat Benatar do. These are women that not only run with the big boys, they hold their own and blow them out of the water. Julianne Hough has a very sweet, high, little girl voice that sounds kittenish when she performs. It’s not suited to hair metal at all. She has a pop voice, which isn’t a bad thing, if she were in a pop music based movie. It turns the music she is singing into sugary parody and puts a sheen of glittery ridiculousness on the entire show.
The other young star tapped for a part, Deigo Boneta, who played Drew Boley was better suited to his role. His voice was very polished, so it missed a lot of the rough edges in the vocals from the glory days of Hair Metal, but the range was there and the force and conviction of the delivery were behind it. When he ended up in a boy band, selling his soul to try to make it in the music industry, his voice worked in that format, too. His seemed more like a developing vocal style, which, given how old he was supposed to be in the movie, was a tactic that worked for his character.
It’s really the minor characters, though, who make the movie most watchable. Mary J Blige did a fantastic job showing an air of weary, jaded melancholy in her role as the owner of a strip club. She was both wise and resigned to her lot in life, presiding over a temple to broken dreams and girls who have lost their way. It was easy to see how much she wished that none of the girls there had ever ended up working for her and how much she wanted all of them to just be able to get out and go on with their lives.
Paul Giamatti practically oozes slime as he wheels and deals his fast-talking way through his portrayal of Paul Gill. You want to hate him because his character deserves to be hated so much. At the same time, the smooth talk and endless patter is as hilarious as it is stereotypical.
Bryan Cranston just felt underutilized. He was the upright, uptight mayor of Los Angeles and while we get to see the hypocrisy behind his character in a couple of brief glimpses his character was seen so briefly, he shouldn’t have even been a footnote. Catherine Zeta-Jones played his wife in the movie and she was a high-minded righteous crusader for both the good of humanity and the ears of innocent children everywhere. Next to her, Cranston’s chracter just ended up lost in the shuffle.
You’ll notice that these supporting characters are the ones that I’m most impressed by and offering up the best commentary on. There’s a reason for that. They were simply better acted and better written. In a movie that’s supposed to feature a larger-than-life bonafide Rock Star and two aspiring heirs to the Rock kingdom, everybody else showing more stage presence and leaving stronger impressions is a serious flaw. For the most part, the only character name in the whole movie that actually remembered, seconds after walking out the theater door, was Stacee Jaxx. The names, to be honest, aren’t important because, sadly, the characters aren’t that important or well-defined enough to make it worthwhile to remember them. I confess. I’ve had to look up the names of every single one of these characters to write this column, except Stacee.
As for the music, well, there were at least two pieces that really should have been swapped in the movie. Catherine Zeta-Jones launches into “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” when she’s riling up her pastel-suited army of easily-offended conservative housewives and sings “We’re Not Gonna Take It” during the confrontation of Stacee Jaxx outside the nightclub towards the climax of the movie. Those choices just don’t make any sense in the context of the movie. They would have been so much better had they been switched. It would have been an excellent use of the music to both forward the story and keep it fully relevant to the scene at hand. Sadly, the opportunity was missed and now they’ll never be able to fix it.
Even worse, given the course of the plot and its predictability, the movie’s final scene, which is supposed to be triumphant and celebratory is, at best, bitter sweet. As an audience, we all know that this movie ends on the greatest moment of these character’s lives. Six years from now, in the aftermath the movie will never show, Stacee Jaxx and everyone on stage with him is going to be the subject of one of the most depressing and dismal episodes of “Behind the Music” ever. They’re all going to be unemployed, broke, addicted to hard drugs, and divorced because that’s just exactly where their lives are headed. It’s a story that has been retread as much as the songs in the soundtrack, the only difference is that it played out in real life and VH1 aired it starring the people it actually happened to.
“Rock of Ages” turned out to be such a dismal failure because it just had so many glaringly obvious issues. The movie was going to be fantastically cheesetacular, no matter what they did with it just by virtue of when and where it was set. They managed a couple of really good cameos from some rockers of the era, but that little gimmick could have been better used to make “Rock of Ages” one of those movies that becomes a fantastic game of Rock & Roll “Where’s Waldo?” that ends up launching the audience into endless rounds of discussion of the music and groups that they liked and how that music made them feel.
Instead, the odd moviegoers who managed to trickle in to see “Rock of Ages” were treated to one of the most banal and listless strip club scenes to ever be put onto film. It’s one thing for the disaffected women on the stage to look bored and just go through the motions with blank-eyed robotic movements, it’s quite another thing for the men sitting in the audience to look just as bored with the performance. Sure, it’s supposed to be bleak and depressing, but there’s no context for why it’s supposed to be such a dismal set of circumstances. The strip club is entirely too well-lit and clean to give that necessary air of seediness to make “Rock of Ages” the morality tale it’s really intended to be.
“Rock of Ages” could have been a great story about staying true to yourself and being honest, not just about your dreams, but about how you achieve them. It ended up being a glossy and slickly-produced movie about people pretending to be Rock Stars without actually understanding anything about what that means or how American culture sees that profession. Still, if nothing else, watching it did inspire me to write this column. I just wish it could have been about a better movie.