June 15, 2012, Warners/New Line 123 minutes
I suppose it was only a matter of time until we got a Tom Cruise musical--and a cruise missile of a musical it is. Repurposing rock hits into narrative arcs can only be classified as naked commercialism. It's not like these songs were crying out for dramatic context--they're AM radio fare. The movie's poster comes at you like those cheap TV ads for K-tel records, the big names flying at you--Tom Cruise! Mary J. Blige! Catherine Zeta Jones! Alec Baldwin! Foreigner! Journey! Guns N' Roses! Bon Jovi! "Nothin' But a Good Time" promised. But in fact the movie has a lot of (uninspired) story--tho less than the stage show, astonishingly, whose libretto by Chris D'Arienzo was a virtual season's worth of melodrama stuffed between 24 musical numbers--a good many of which are mash-ups of two or three songs by disparate bands. Such a long-winded book prevents any mistaking the show for a rock concert masquerading as theater. And great effort has been made to use familiar '80s hits in a context that defines the characters and/or advances the plot; in other words, like a real Bway musical. This was something of a surprise to me, having come to another, less cohesive prejudgment based on what little interest I could muster to consider this in the Bway canon. The mere mention of the heavy metal bands whose songs make up the score was enuf to kill my interest in its tracks. Or should I say, traxxx?
Being a Bway baby didn't preclude my taking interest in other genres of music as I emerged from the cocoon of childhood, including--prominently enuf--"rock" in manifestations of pop, reggae, ska, new wave, salsa, world beat and electronica. Wheras musicals are a finite study (perhaps a dozen new a year), rock is a countless universe of bands with a dizzying spectrum of banality to sophistication. With so much volume how do we ever find our way to our own musical gods? Or do they somehow find us? Surely our friends & peers influence our taste, or at least introduce new sounds into our lives. Some relationships are built entirely around the appreciation of music. It was my high school friend, Bill (and later first roommate in New York) who began my education down the slippery slope with such hippies as The Mamas & the Papas and Spanky & Our Gang before acclimating me to the likes of Grace Slick, Santana, Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman. What does our taste in music say about us? Does it in some fundamental way, define us? Is it as ephemeral a question as one of nature vs nurture? Music has been an incalcuable factor in my life--I couldn't imagine living without it. But for the most part, the score of Rock of Ages fires very little in my brain's pleasure center.
Is it unfair to surmise a certain demographic drawn to the catalog of bands chosen here? (White, blue-collar, parochial, testosterone driven?) Was the impetus for the show from (D'Arienzo's) musical affection, or was this a wholly commercial opportunity seized? In either case the question remains: did the score (as chosen) dictate the characters, the sensibility, the milieu and the story? Or did the script come first, seeking songs to make its points? My guess is the former--for it's hard to take the narrative seriously. A sort of A Star is Born of the LA rock scene; the story revels in the finer points of sleaze even as it wants to wink at it in parody. It's still a little difficult for me to accept the pic as a period piece--but in fact it is set some 25 years ago, which ages the music more than I can readily recognize. I mean this: in 25 years pop music evolved from The Andrews Sisters and Benny Goodman to Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones. If it doesn't seem to me so radically different now from the '80s; then call me ignorant of current rock. At any rate the core audience here was aging adults whose youth was steeped in this soundtrack.
After tryouts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Rock of Ages tested the waters Off-Bway for a few months before transferring to Bway in March 2009--where it ran as long as Man of La Mancha--until January 2015. The show was rushed to the screen faster than any in memory; with the film coming--and going--midway thru its Bway run. Such optimism wasn't built on Chris D'Arenzio's book, given the fundamental changes made, and the addition of two other scribes (Allan Loeb & Justin Theroux--yes, Jennifer Aniston's mate) --to wrestle a new screenplay. Much of this might have something to do with attracting Tom Cruise to playing Stacee Jaxx. In the stage musical Jaxx is entirely despicable and ends up a has-been. The film paints him more ambiguously. Indulgent & excessive beyond parody, he also wants to be the pic's soul--a psuedo-zen freak with spiritual powers; he not only retains his status but succumbs to a blonde wife with (at coda) baby on board. Curiously, the young wannabe rock stars, Sherrie & Drew on stage wind up heading for the suburbs; whereas on film they, of course, find stardom. Wisely cut was a subplot with a German father & son (villainous developers after the Bourbon Room club); whose conflict is the son's passion for confectionary baking. The film invents instead a morality-spouting adulterous Mayor, whose wife campaigns to close the club with a fervor equal to her once devotion as groupie (and bedmate) of Jaxx's.
D'Arienzo demonstrates no talent for names. Stacee Jaxx? Wofgang Von Colt? Constance Sack? Drew Boley? A boy band called Z Guyeezz? A glass of beer and two friends could improve on this on any given night. But not apparently a trio of screenwriters. When Sherrie meets her idol, Stacee, she gets off this gem: "When my hamster died your music really helped me pull thru." Yes, I know it's meant to be ridiculous, but really? Much of the script seems to have been written around a bong. Such as when Sherrie and Drew trade notes on how far their fortunes have fallen:
--"I'm a stripper at the Venus Club"
--"I'm in a boy band"
Club owners Dennis & Lonny are thrown the one uncliched character surprise: they realize their attraction for each other, and act on it, unabashedly. It's not really very convincing, coming off more as patronizing--but as it celebrates rather than condemns queerness--in a (arguably) heterosexually-aimed piece of entertainment, it's hard to object to. But there's only manufactured conflict, nothing of any substance, or really, even interest.
Was there ever such an outcry over rock in the '80s that had the religious right protesting on the Sunset Strip? The flimsiest of devices parts lovers Sherrie & Drew--he thinks she fucked Jaxx; she thinks the spotlight has turned him into an instant asshole; Jaxx himself has an unlikely reckoning confronted by a journalist. It's all as random as Dennis & Lonny's sudden passion for each other.
The film was assigned to Adam Shankman who'd directed Hairspray a few years before, demonstrating an understanding of musicals on screen. In fact, his helming here is not to be faulted--neither in his staging of the many musical sequences, or the semi-starry casting with top-lined (but not top-billed) Cruise. Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Malin Akerman play roles newly written for the pic; and Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, and Russell Brand nicely prop up supporting characters. Somehow I've remained rather clueless about Julianne Hough, who seems entirely new to me, tho apparently she came to prominence quite young on TV's Dancing with the Stars, and had already made the Footloose remake in Hlwd, as well as Cher's Burlesque. (Later in 2016 she plays Sandy in the live-TV Grease.) As Sherie in Rock, Hough defines the
country girl gone Hollywood-rocker with exactitude down to her still blushing youth. For her love interest, Shankman determined that Mexican TV actor and singer Diego Boneta would score as Zac Efron did in Hairspray. He's fine as well, but Boneta appears to me underage for getting in, letting alone working a bar. Which makes Baldwin & Brand look like codgers. Their slow burn for each other adds some fresh humor, even tho it never feels very real. Mary J. Blige models a series of wigs while running a strip joint; Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to sing Pat Benatar while feigning Republicanism; and Paul Giamatti disappears into the role of slimey agent, complete with world's most pathetic pony-tail. Unfortunately, none of them are very interesting characters.
Credit Shankman for boldly putting forth an unapolegetic credence to the laws of musical comedy right from the start, with Hough belting her heart out on a bus heading west, only to have her fellow passengers naturally join in. Her arrival in Hollywood is "Just Like Paradise" tho in short order she dodges a drug bust, gets accosted by hookers, harassed by males and loses her suitcase to a thief. Heavy handed, sure. But these people are going to sing these songs as if they were the narrative, and not some MTV video, and they come with much more frequency than you'd expect. A good many of them are also mash-ups of two or three songs, and reflect various pairings and storylines. But the film is also uncommonly vulgar while shying away from more hardcore realities (there's more cocaine in Annie Hall than all of here); as a rock god, Stacee Jaxx gives Tom Cruise license to indulge in his brand of movie star weirdness (better exploited in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia), complete with hawk-like
stares and tattooed bod--tho at times it feels like he's relying on his bandanna to do all the acting. The Sub-Saharan circus surrounding him is a bit much (including a monkey butler lamely called "Hey-Man")' but you can see his magnetism as a rock star--a performance kid Cruise has been rehearsing since pubescence. As well as the soft-porn scene that's "I Want to Know What Love Is"--tho what's meant to be comic is simply trashy. Later at the Venus Club Mary Blige unleashes a Cirque de Soleil-worthy pole dance number to "Anyway You Want it" by Journey--an insanely popular band, of which I've managed to exist all my life knowing virtually nothing about. Their catchy but vacuous anthem, "Don't Stop Believin' " wraps the film up in a fairy-tale ending: Jaxx sober, reborn & soon-to-be-dad by journalist bride; Drew & Sherrie a duo in Jaxx' show, and all remaining characters rocking out in the audience, including an unleashed Zeta-Jones in fishnets & leather. And not a hint of marijuana smoked on screen--in this hardcore LA rock scene. It's almost unbearably silly.
To great extent one's enjoyment of this pic, depends on one's taste for the chosen brand of rock. Half a dozen songs were familiar to me from the '80s zeitgeist, but I ran a very different soundtrack during those years: Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Sade, The B-52s, Blondie, The English Beat, Springsteen Madness. Along with...Evita, Dreamgirls, Nine, Rags, Little Shop of Horrors, Chess. But in truth I listened to more rock in those days than Bway--which felt evermore in decline, or worse: irrelevant. Rock of Ages hit the summer market on the Ides of June 2012--but even a starry cast (and Tom Cruise to boot!) didn't draw a millenial audience. The film scraped up $38 million domestic, but less than $60m worldwide--falling far short of its $75m cost.
It had been two and half years since Nine--the last Bway musical transferred to screen, and a great deal had transpired in my life with a nod to the future. A smart agent sold my deceased mother's house in San Jose instant-quick, and for above asking; which in turn allowed me to put a serious bid on the house I'd eyed in Palm Springs, struggling in a bottomed-out market, now in a short sale. I came out like a bandit--first-time homeowner in what felt like my spiritual homeland since I was nine years old. Fully furnished and equipment stocked, I was set from the start to accommodate vacation rentals until my own retirement & relocation. In the meantime, that allowed for my own extended desert getaways, which effortlessly drew friends from both coasts and Chicago. Times were good. Obama had taken reigns from the idiot Bush; my job was as secure as it was unobtrusive; Greg was stable if not terribly active; my entire known family was dead and scattered to the wind and I had at last unshackeled myself from the slavery of ambition. I conceived & commenced this very blog--which became more pleasure than project and has smoothly driven these last 7 years of my creative life. 2011 was also the year I finally broke my 28 year streak of passport storage. The impetus was a maiden voyage on a luxury cruise line sponsored by Playbill magazine, a Bway-themed cruise with top Big Street talent sailing around Italy in September. It was compelling, and easy to convince Larry Rubinstein to join me. But prior to sailing I granted myself a continental mini-Grand Tour, hitting London, Paris, Rome, after a quick dash thru New York, where I had just enuf time between visits with friends to catch The Addams Family (even with a replacement cast it was de regiuer--as
"mi familia" of course.) and Catch Me If You Can, which I loved even more than in Seattle, but which sadly, puzzlingly, didn't catch on in NY. Far less memorable was the single West End show I caught, Betty Blue Eyes--a pleasant if minor musical based on a minor 1984 British film, A Private Function. (Even the Brits were now adapting their old movies.) What I most wanted to see, Matilda, was still a month off. I lucked into a discount rate at Claridges and ran all over London for 3 nights--which was but a tasty sample of a town that feuled my imagination for over half a century. I suspect my British obessesion was first perked (again at age 9) by an hour-long sitcom from CBS in the fall of '62 called Fair Exchange--which left a strong impression upon me, despite airing for only several months. A NY & London family swapped daughters for a school year. Culture shock ensued. Paris was an embarrassment of landmarks, but I came away from my whirlwind trio of days, feeling the place somehow cold. That was instantly corrected upon arrival in Rome--as I'm always comfortable around Italians, which is more than I can say for the French.
The Regent cruise introduced these eyes to a series of Mediterranean jewels: Portofino, Monte Carlo, Sorrento, Amalfi. The Playbill contingent proved to be only about 120 out of 700 passengers, but we got to know a few. As the online face of all-things-Bway, Seth Rudestky was familiar to most of us already, and as Camp Counselor he quickly matched Larry & I up to John & James from London, who aside from bonding so nicely (and having such great senses of humor) were only over time revealed to me to be well-connected British theater folk. It was nice at this stage of life to enjoy them merely as people and not calculated opportunities to exploit. Among the marquee names on our cruise none was more exciting to me than Andrea Martin--
whom I had worshipped for decades (for her catalog of characters on SCTV and other comedy shows) long before she stepped on a Bway stage and earned Tony nominations for each of her five Bway musicals--and winning twice. Aside from considering her a comic genius I felt I had a deeper understanding of her as an Armenian-American woman; as she had much in common with a friend of my parents, who I'd grown up knowing only too well, and who in 1970 took me and my high school pal, Bill, from Syracuse (my birthplace and her home) to Niagra Falls, Toronto and up to Montreal--all the while revealing herself a character worthy of Andrea Martin. It was a thrilling treat to watch the genius behind Edith Prickley and Pirini Schleroso, work up close, of course, but it was even better to engage with her offstage. Yet there was a moment in one of the Playbill informals where we did some improv that afforded me the chance to reference a rather obscure (but choice) bit from Andrea's SCTV days with but a gesture. Our eyes locked as she got my reference, and it was all either of us could do from breaking up entirely. Something in the bolt of that moment between us was so private, yet in full view of an audience made it all the more electric. Her friend, Debra Monk accompanied her on the cruise (without performing), and the 4 of us later spent an afternoon at Peggy Guggenheim's museum in Venice after sloshing down the Grand Canal in a motorboat. Also on board ship were Christine Ebersole (who would figure in later travels) and Brian Stokes Mitchell who arrived only on the final night,
but lingered long after his lovely concert to chat up our group, allowing me to impress upon him how good (divorced from its ill-fated, manic production) the score was for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown--something he didn't seem aware of had come thru on record. It was nearly the end of the cruise before we got acquainted with Jeff & Karen Seltzer, dedicated theatre fans--and in Jeff something of an archivist after my own heart--they too, would figure later. If the world was opening up to me again it wasn't thru the cinema or theater. Rock of Ages doesn't satisfy as either a Bway or film musical, nor did it draw fans of these bands in large numbers. But there will be no end of rock music and musicians featured on Bway, some misguided fast flops, some immensely successful.