[18 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With a little more than $15 million at the box office and a resounding rebuff from critics, Rock of Ages is poised to be one of2012’s major disappointments. Perhaps not on the level of something like Battleship, but certainly one of co-star Tom Cruise’s worst weekend showings ever. Now before you right off Mr. Scientology and his future career prospects, there are a few things to remember. First, last December’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was a huge hit, both here and abroad, and the pundits have been uniformly positive about his performance as aging rocker Stacee Jaxx. Some - including yours truly - have suggested he is deserving of an Oscar nod for his engaging, intriguing turn. Even if it turns out his voice was electronically altered to capture a true singing performance, Cruise is perhaps the sole positive note in an otherwise sour, cliched experience.
Yet there’s another factor that some have suggested ruined an otherwise rockin’ good time. Fans of the jukebox Broadway show, a silly, self-referential meta mess that actually recognized its own depressing ending and “rewrote” it, live on stage, have witnessed several startling changes to the narrative. Equally upsetting were the cutting of several classic songs and the inclusion of new, sometimes unnecessary tunes. Sure, it’s great to hear Cruise belt out a brilliant rendition of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard, but it was not part of the original production. Gone are moments when the out of control star supports versions of “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Cum On Feel the Noize,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” and “Renegade.” It has been suggested that the changes in Stacee’s character clearly came from the actor. But director Adam Shankman is also guilty of giving the entire Rock of Ages experience a softer, PG-13 profile.
In interviews, the filmmaker stressed that the movie be open to all audience members, not just those who remember the sweat and sex of the LA Strip circa 1986. The somewhat slutty main character of small town girl Sherrie was further softened, an entire subplot involving Stacee Jaxx, a torrid affair, and an eventual lap dance removed and/or rewritten. Also missing are the songs of Styx (see above), Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” and of course, the almost mandatory “Oh, Sherrie.” Perhaps the biggest alteration, however, revolves around the villainous element. On stage, the main threat is development and shady land deals. In the movie, Catherine Zeta-Jones gets a PMRC makeover as a former fan struggling with her sexual desires for Stacee. Her solution? Peg the fictional Bourbon Room as a den of inequity and shut it down, ultra-Conservative style.
Now, one has to wonder if all the makeovers and modifications actually affected the final tally. After all, many stage experiences have been altered to reach a wider, more appreciative crowd and have hit their target. In this case, the reinvention of Stacee Jaxx from practiced pervert to redeemed icon makes a lot more sense (the character leaves America at the end of the original musical, avoiding the statutory rape charges that came with hooking up with Sherrie). More importantly, Cruise sells such an intense inner journey that, without it, Rock of Ages would be even more saccharine. In fact, the biggest complaint many have with the movie is that it waters down the decadent spirit of the scene to create a kind of old fashioned 42nd Street stereotype.
In retrospect, if one really wants to see what LA’s hair metal phenomenon was like, they need look no further than Penelope Spheeris’ brilliant The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II. There, amid the documentary excesses and excuses, the true story of MTV and the rise in rock ‘n’ roll was illustrated effortlessly. Rock of Ages was never meant to be realistic, but to retrofit it into a forced fairytale, complete with empty vacuous leads and a lack of edge was clearly misguided. Anyone who loved the stage show and music would enter expecting some amount of sleaze. In truth, they come away sanitized. But there is more to the problem than merely pissing off the fanbase. Even as nostalgia, as an attempt to recapture the glory days when Dee Snider would take on Tipper Gore for the minds and hearts of American teens, Rock of Ages is no Headbangers Ball.
Oddly enough, the former Music Television is probably the main reason for the movie’s failure. Shankman, showering the property with his usual brand of bland, fails to find the magic that so many fledgling directors did back during the days of Reagan. There’s no joy, no internal celebration of Id unleashed. Sexism is replaced with proto-PC conceits and the lure of groupies is given lame lip service. Instead of meaningful metal, everything plays like a Disney TV movie version of the source. Cruise may be able to sell sex appeal by a mere discharging of his shirt, but Shankman does everything in his limited power to clean him up. You can see a more solemn, serious Stacee Jaxx movie buried within the actor’s amazing turn. Rock of Ages doesn’t know what to do with it, and as a result, neither does the viewer.
Even worse, the plot changes make for a shaky, scattered narrative. Zeta-Jones’ crusader shows up toward the very beginning of the film to sing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot…” and then literally disappears for most of the story. Similarly, the introduction of Malin Akerman’s Rolling Stone reporter (a substitute for Sherrie in Stacee’s bed) never pays off. She becomes a weird pseudo symbol, like Glenn Close in The Natural without a bit of bite or depth. Even our heroine’s slide into stripping is declawed, the club overseen by a sadly out of place Mary J. Blige and lacking any real connection to the carnal realities of such a place. While such alterations probably have little to do with the film’s final box office take, it does indicate a lack of vision on everyone’s part.
In fact, Rock of Ages could be guilty of the most simple of cinematic truths - it’s not very good. Some can see past the problems in casting and plotline and enjoy the raucous tunes. Others concentrate wholly on one or two things (Cruise, the bi byplay between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand) and give it a pass. But the truth remains that Rock of Ages was poised as a solid summer spectacle, a popcorn extravaganza with a satisfying stunt core bringing the old school musical up to date. Instead, a $15 million verdict has been rendered, and the response has been anything but a good time.