Dangers of the Jukebox Musical
The dangers of the jukebox musical are well established, evident in all the shows that came and went from the legitimate stage in less time than it took to read this sentence. Unimaginative books, limp performers, and mechanistic plots sacrifice all in favor of jamming in the songs, dooming even those shows featuring supposedly bulletproof material like Johnny Cash, Elvis, the Beach Boys, and John Lennon. Of course, the runaway success of just a couple of those shows (Mamma Mia! and, to a lesser extent, Jersey Boys) ensure that people will keep trying and trying and trying.
Rock of Ages, the weirdly unkillable hair-metal mash-up that’s been playing Off-Broadway for years and is now turned into a full-orchestra monster of the movie, ducks the biggest weakness in the jukebox model by ditching the one-artist idea. Instead, the tourist-baiting stage show offers a package of hits from the 1980s sure to tug at the memories of nostalgic Gen Xers. It’s a big hooey of a romance set against the backdrop of some rock-hating PMRC-style prudes doing battle with a Whisky-a-Go-Go-like rock club and an Axl Rose-stand-in of a rock god. You crank the Poison up to 11 and just about anything can work for eight shows a week, it seems.
Only that’s not the case when it comes to Adam Shankman’s film version. More karaoke playlist than anything else, it offers glimpses of the casting genius that characterized Shankman’s Hairspray. But the charismatic pros assembled here seem repeatedly constrained rather than unleashed. Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin are the picture of bewigged ludicrousness as Lonny and Dennis, who run the Bourbon Room, a Sunset Strip den of iniquity that’s more CBGBs than Whisky and has attracted the ire of the mayor’s bluestocking wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Brand and Baldwin vamp in their “rock and roll” togs like it’s all good fun while she snarls her way through her scenes, a villain in a fresh-pressed Talbots pantsuit.
Among her targets is Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), frontman for a band that looks like Guns n’ Roses in their Appetite for Destruction heyday, and a Vince Neil-esque poster child for the ravaging dangers of success. When first glimpsed in his dark cavern of a dressing room, Jaxx rises in a slow uncoiling motion from a nest of silk sheets and naked groupies’ limbs, all tattooed torso (most notable piece of art: two handguns angled at his crotch) and bugged-out stare, the next incarnation of the Lizard King. Cruise conveys Jaxx’s dazed and confused fugue with an otherworldly determination that—as cartoonish as it is—gives the film its only near-glimmer of authenticity. His singing voice is a couple notches below his performance, but certainly good enough for his assortment of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi covers.
The shadow Jaxx throws across the film is immense. Everyone is either lusting after him (his furniture-demolishing sex scenes with a Rolling Stone reporter played by Malin Ackerman are some of the film’s few genuinely knowing and funny moments) or pining for his attention. But still, it’s not large enough. That feeling is reinforced every time the two leads whisper onto screen. The pallid Julianne Hough plays Sherrie, the prototypical small-town girl who comes to Hollywood to become a star, but first falls in love with a bartender named Drew (Diego Boneta). Within half a day of their meeting, they’re in a we’re-in-love montage scored by Poison, only to break up a few hours later and thankfully disappear from view before reuniting for a power ballad or two.
The preposterousness of their romance is not in itself a problem: musical theater would be doomed if it were. But the lack of chemistry between them ensures that the film crashes to a stop whenever they’re sharing the screen, singing or not. Even more troubling, the film is painfully oblivious to the provenance of its music. It’s one thing to have the cast burst into song whenever the opportunity for a car commercial-approved rock anthem presents itself: really, there’s nothing wrong with people singing Warrant for no particular reason. But it’s quite another thing to have a character like Drew be an aspiring musician who is pouring all of his soul into writing a song that’s actually Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It’s not his song, so how can the audience be expected to care whether or not he finishes and performs it?
It would be nice to think that Shankman and his writers were laughing to themselves when Dennis shouts at Drew before he goes on stage, “Three songs! And no covers!” We hope they realize what they’re doing, how the film encourages us not to believe in much of anything. After all, it does gives us Russell Brand quoting Hamlet at a particularly scummy crowd, “You foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” Maybe Rock of Ages gets this joke, even if it doesn’t seem so.