Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rock of Ages - Theatrical Review


Release Date:June 15, 2012

If there is one thing that will divide ANY fans of a musical, it is without a doubt the song selection. This rule is no different for Rock of Ages, a movie that features an amazing soundtrack and is just a whole lot of fun.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Regal Stadium 16 Garden Grove
Time: 6:20 pm June 16, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 3 min
Studio: Warner Bros.

Loves: Musicals
Likes: Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, 80's rock
Neutral: Catherine Zeta Jones, Julianne Hough, Russell Brand
Hates: People who go into a musical expecting more than just good music
Fact: Rock of Ages was not actually filmed in Los Angeles

Musicals for me always come down to two things, the music and its delivery method. Uneven acting and sub par stories are generally forgiven just so long as the music is good and it is done in an entertaining fashion. Not exactly a strict method for critiquing a film I know, but musicals almost live on an almost completely different plane of existence than your average movie, they just don't play by the same rules. The motivation for them is to celebrate the music and how it makes us feel. This new film from director Adam Shankman based on the Off Broadway play is just that, a celebration of music from a specific era and a moment in time that for some defined their way of life. Rock of Ages isn't complicated, it's not meant to set the world on fire or win awards, it's only interested in having nothing but a good time and hoping that you do to.

Small town Oklahoma girl and aspiring singer Sherrie (Julianne Hough) has just arrived in Hollywood California 1987. After losing all her belongings she is taken in by another aspiring rock singer Drew (Diego Bonita) and his boss, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), owner of the famous Bourbon Room. Their establishment is under attack however by the blood thirsty wife of the mayor, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who will stop at nothing to prevent the final performance by the hit rock band Arsenal and its lead singer, rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who is planning on going on a solo career soon after

Big dreams and Hollywood often go together real well.

Rock of Ages pulls no punches when it comes to letting you know what type of movie it is. It opens with a scene on a bus where one of our main characters breaks out into song immediately which is soon followed by the bus driver joining in, some random passengers and soon the entire bus is singing along with her. It is at that exact moment when you will discover whether or not this is a movie for you or not because it sets the stage perfectly for every single moment that follows, which is a series of musical numbers, most of which are from classic 80's rock groups such as Poison, Def Leopard, Twisted Sister and even some more mellow tracks from the likes of Foreigner and Starship. Make no bones about it, this is a musical and you better accept it.

There is no doubt in my mind that this film will live and die by those music selections since it is so reliant on that feeling of nostalgia that it so desperately wants to infuse into its audience. Other more recent musicals such as Mamma Mia and Shankman's 2007 musical remake, Hairspray, had a story or plot that could resonate with people of all ages regardless of the music being used. The music in Rock of Ages could almost be considered its Achilles heel since it is the ONLY thing of any real merit in the film and because of that it must rely on its audience feeling some sort of attachment to those songs. It worked for me because I grew up with most of the songs used here but I really can't imagine a scenario where your average teenage audience would go into this and be entertained by a rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing". They will probably be more comfortable and entertained by the latest Katy Perry song on their ipod than sitting through these dusty old tracks.

Dennis Dupree tries to find a way to save The Bourbon Room.

But none of that matters really since this movie was made with one sole demographic in mind, the children and young adults of the late 80's rock scene, and for them I can't imagine them not being satisfied by what Rock of Ages has to offer. I have stated before that story and character work here are not of the highest caliber, but that's OK cause it just wants to celebrate a very specific era of music and when that music is pumping it becomes this fantastically fun love letter to the songs of a generation, my generation. Does that mean I have some sort of bias towards the film in this regard? Hell yes it does. Just take another look at my list at the beginning of this review, I am admitting right here and now that I not only liked the film for the music but actually LOVED it because of the music. I don't think you will get too many hot or colds on this one, you either like the music or you don't.

The music, as amazing as it is, is only one half of the equation though. Any musical musical worth its salt will know that it takes more than just great music. The other integral part is its delivery method or more to the point, the people who sing the songs and the performances they give while doing so. By that I mean the dance numbers or just the flow of events that takes place during any of the films many rock ballads. As paper thin as the story is and as one dimensional as many of its characters are, the film relies fairly heavily on relaying its story and character growth through all of its songs and how they flow from one another must not only make some sort of relative sense but also be entertaining. If you want a good analogy just think of musicals as one big music video collection. Rock of Ages nails this for its first half with every song and every instance hitting just the right tempo leading up to the eventual on stage performance of Stacee Jaxx. Seeing the actors having such a blast with the material mixed with the general infectious nature of the song selection made Rock of Ages just a constant joy to watch.

Yep, this is an 80's movie alright.

But that second half of the film is where things start to fall apart at the seams a little. Now, I want to qualify this by saying I still enjoyed all the music and performances in that second half but none it felt as cohesive and relevant to the story being told as everything in that first half, let me explain. The story centers on a number of characters, Sherrie and Drew finding love while also looking for fame, Stacee Jaxx coming to grips with the fact that he had sold out years ago, Dennis Dupree trying to find a way to keep his business operational and Patricia Whitmore looking to clean up the streets of Hollywood for her secret agenda. Every scene with them and their musical ballads felt as though they were working towards a common goal with this huge performance by Stacee Jaxx at the Bourbon Room as the grand finale. It all works near flawlessly regardless of how you might feel about its cookie cutter story and characters. The problem lies with how after that Stacee Jaxx performance it just keeps going and it seems to not really know where it is going anymore and how to best get there.

All those characters and their individual stories are complicated after that shift into the second half of the film which just felt somewhat unnecessary given the complexities it was already dealing with by having such a large cast of characters. Perhaps the stage play handled this better, but I couldn't help but feel that all these extra layers being thrown on top of everything just slowed down the rather brisk pace of that first hour. I mean, did we really need to see Sherrie and Drew have a falling out which resulted in them chasing shallow dreams only to end up back in each others arms by the end? (oops, spoiler alert there). Would it really have been that bad to just have them find each other and support one another til the end? I know some might say we needed some extra drama in there but to those people I would like to point out once again my statement about story and character being secondary when it comes to a musical. It's nice to have but it should never come at the cost of the primary focus of the film which is just to have some kick ass music.

The dance numbers are well done and go great with the music.

Not all is bad during that second half though. As I mentioned, the music is still pretty great and even though the story takes its sweet ass time wrapping things up it still concludes with a satisfying and somewhat predictable finale. By far the best thing in the film outside the music though is Tom Cruise as the legendary rock god Stacee Jaxx. The character itself is just this amalgamation of artists like David Lee Roth, Bret Michaels, Axel Rose and countless other 80's rock icons, but Cruise brings a surprising amount of humor and humanity to the character and provides the audience with an actual three dimensional personality to root for by the end. He is also responsible for much of the comedy in the movie of which there is plenty. I have heard some people say the film is a little too serious for their own good but I have to wonder if they saw the same movie as me because there are some flat out hilarious moments in the film and just about everyone plays it straight but not in a way where you ever think they are having anything but a good time.

You are gonna hear me say that a lot before this review is over, this movie is just a dam good time and a whole lot of fun. It's not just the music though, the actors help immensely with that feeling with their glowing performances. Julianne Hough is someone I was aware of by name only before this but despite being saddled with a rather generic character she hit it out of the park whenever that spotlight was turned on her. Diego Bonita is another unknown to me and other than having a striking resemblance to a young Matthew McConaughey, he also did a bang up job when he was up to bat (especially when it came to those boy band scenes). Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand could almost be considered a duo here since they never leave each others side (which is explained why in one of the more lighthearted and completely unnecessary duets of the film), but both were clearly having a lot of fun, especially Baldwin. Catherine Zeta-Jones is probably the one person in the film I knew would be great with her previous experience in Chicago and she did not let me down (even in her mid 40s she can still move those hips like a pro). Malin Akerman was responsible for probably my favorite scene in the film with her duet with Cruise and even Paul Giamatti, seemingly reprising his role as Pig Vomit from Private Parts, got in on the action with a very brief lyric which was hopefully intentionally funny (I mean, who went into this expecting him to sing?).

Tom Cruise steals the show with little effort.

There was not a weak link amongst the actors assembled here and the fact that they all did their own vocals is even more impressive when you think back at the long line of musicals where great actors failed at turning in credible musical performances. That of course brings me right back to my original point, this movie is all about the music. The characters and story are there to serve as a vessel to deliver that music to us and it really shouldn't be judged on any other basis. Yes, it would have been nice to have a story that wasn't so cliche or characters that weren't so one note but at the end of the day, all that really matters is if you had a good time while watching it.

I had a great time with Rock of Ages and I think any other child of the 80's will also find a lot to love about it. Don't worry about whether or not someone you know didn't like it or if your favorite critic said the music wasn't very good. Hell, take everything I have said with grain of salt as well (I suggest you do that for everything I write or say as a matter of fact). Movies in general are always highly subjective and when it comes to a musical it becomes even more difficult to judge who will or will not like it, which is why most musicals featuring known quantities as opposed to original pieces often have such mixed reviews, because not everyone has the same taste in music. Based on that alone, if you are a fan of the music featured in Rock of Ages then I say luck may be in your favor with this one. It may not be perfect but it hits all the notes it needs to and on that basis alone I suggest that when you get a chance...




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