Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rock of Ages

Alternate Title:  Don't Stop Believing

One sentence synopsis:    Rock.

Things Havoc liked: Full disclosure: I am a child of the 80s, and this is my music. Adapt this review accordingly.

An adaptation of a popular Broadway musical, Rock of Ages is one of a genre of films I've long been rather ambivalent about. Such films require a degree of disbelief suspension rarely-encountered in western films, as we must accept that characters will burst into song accompanied by dozens of choreographed dancers at the drop of a hat. It's the sort of conceit you simply have to accept in order for the movie to work at all, and those who cannot do so need not apply. Though I admit that I can't always do it myself, I shall proceed here under the assumption that a prospective viewer will not be put off by the nature of the musical film.

I said in my review of Mission Impossible 4 that Tom Cruise is almost always entertaining, even in bad movies (such as Mission Impossible 4). Here, Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, a rock-god made up seemingly of equal parts Axel Rose and Ozzy Osbourne. Constantly in a drunken, drug-addled haze, accompanied by a pet baboon, and borderline incomprehensible at all times, Cruise sells this ludicrous parody amazingly well. Quite apart from the music (which we'll get to), his character behaves like Keith Richards after a three-day bender, with his mind shooting off in seventeen directions at once, and his body so weighted down by drugs and booze that he can barely act on any of it. It's an awesome performance, and the best in the film.

But not by much. Alec Baldwin, who is reliably awesome in almost everything I've seen him in, does not disappoint here. He plays Denis Dupree, an aging rock-and-roll fanatic who owns the Bourbon Room, a legendary rock club on the Sunset Strip. Baldwin gets some of the best lines in the movie as a perpetually frazzled, money-plagued rock showman, ably assisted by British comedian Russel Brand as his bumbling floor manager/assistant. Paul Giamati (a name I never expected to see associated with a musical) plays Paul Gill, a record agent for Cruise and later for other artists, who alternates beautifully between being a sleazy bastard, and being the only sane person in the room. Rounding out the A-listers, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a Tipper-Gore style moral crusader against rock music, wife of the mayor of Los Angeles, whose fanaticism is zesty and fun.

But frankly, we're not here for the performances. We're here for the music.

All of the music in Rock of Ages (save for some credit numbers) is re-recorded and sung by the actors themselves, primarily latin singer Diego Boneta and country singer Julianne Hough as the young couple of would-be stars seeking their fortunes in Los Angeles. Though there are problems with this method (and we'll get to them), the biggest surprise to me was just how good the music was overall. Hough in particular is excellent in quite a few pieces, particularly a soaring opening medley of David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise" and Night Ranger's "Sister Christian". Boneta also does well, his best piece coming midway through the movie with an anger-fueled rendition of Twisted Sister's "I wanna Rock", a song I never much liked in the first place, but will have to give another look to. Being the two leads, many of their songs are sung together, and fortunately the two play well off one another, in everything from Joan Jett's thunderous "I Love Rock and Roll" to Poison's languid "Every Rose has it's Thorn".

But by no means do our two singing leads monopolize the music. Tom Cruise, of all people, kills several songs in this movie, the best of which by far is his soaring cover of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard, one of the premier rock anthems of the late 80s. I never in my life would have expected Tom Cruise to pull off a song like this, but he absolutely nails it both vocally and with his in-movie performance. Nor is he the only recognizable actor doing so. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has much better singing credentials behind her, unsurprisingly delivers a high-energy version of Pat Benatar's "Hit me with your Best Shot", as well as the best song in the movie, a duet-mashup between her, Brand, and two choruses, of "We're not Gonna Take It" and "We Built This City on Rock and Roll", by Twisted Sister and Jefferson Starship respectively. This piece is so good I actually think I like it better than either original (especially Starship's) omitting the synth-cheese for rocking choral anthems that bounce off one another beautifully. Meanwhile, Mary J. Blige, who has a thankless throwaway part as a strip club owner, does get one spectacular showpiece, a cover of Journey's "Anyway you want it" done in full choreographed splendor, complete with dozens of backup singers and dancers.

And yet, with all that, my favorite song of all actually belongs to Alec Baldwin, who is manifestly not a great singer, but gets a duet with Russel Brand that nearly killed me. I will not spoil what song it is (for that's half the fun), nor what about it makes it so awesome, but let us simply say that this song alone was worth the price of admission and left people almost literally rolling in the aisles at my screening. Trust me, if you go to see this movie, you'll know it when you see it.

Things Havoc disliked:   Unfortunately, not all the songs work as well as the ones above. There's a couple of different reasons for this, one of which, unfortunately, is Tom Cruise.

Look, don't get me wrong, Cruise rocks in this movie. His portrayal of Stacee Jaxx is as good as anything he did in Tropic Thunder if not better, and it is very clear that he worked his ass off to prepare himself vocally for his songs. But the base fact is that Cruise's singing voice is a high, somewhat nasally tenor, and his range is not terribly broad. Given this limitation, Cruise does everything can to make his songs work, and in the case of the Leppard one I cited above, pulls it off gloriously. But when it comes time to deliver power ballads like Foreigner's "I wanna know what Love is", he sounds almost chipmunk-like. The same issue afflicts him (though admittedly, not as badly) with Bon Jovi's soaring "Wanted Dead or Alive", a murderously difficult song to sing that he does his best with, but simply isn't able to imbue with Jovi's earthy, effortless range.

There's also the issue of the two leads. They're not bad, don't get me wrong. Often they're very good. But there's some songs such as "Don't Stop Believin'" (which if I need to tell you the artist of, you need to stop reading my reviews right now) or Whitesnake's "Here I go Again" where their modern pop sensibilities and training become... distracting. I grant that Steve Perry has a unique voice, and that Whitesnake's David Coverdale gave his song a warbling, rustic tone that's very hard to replicate, but Boneta and Hough's versions sound way too polished, too synthetic-pop music, to the point where I suspected Autotune was involved. Upon reflection, I don't think it was, but the result is to neuter one of the greatest power anthems ever written, as well as strip Whitesnake's greatest song of the Blues-Rock feel that made it so great.

There's also the question of the story and plot, which I accept is an appendix in a film like this, but is nothing special at all even by the standards of movie musicals. We can almost recite the stages of the plot as the two leads meet, fall in love, break up over one of the stupidest misunderstandings I've ever seen, brood, and try as best they can to get back together, all of which is done in front of the backdrop of whether the evil government and property developers will tear down the Bourbon club and build a Beneton in its place (admittedly a fun detail). It's tired and old, and the movie knows it, racing through the plot as quickly as they can so as to get to the next musical number. Moreover, it relegates several characters (such as Blige and Baldwin) to the background, when they are easily more interesting than the leads. The only element of the story that is elevated above these tired cliches is Cruise and his evolving relationship with Malin Åkerman (much better here than in Watchmen), as a music reporter with Rolling Stone. Honestly, there's nothing terribly innovative about Cruise and Åkerman's plot either, but both actors are significantly better than their counterparts, and their performances are strange and interesting enough that it keeps our attention despite it.

Final thoughts:  Like I said though, the plot is an afterthought in a movie like this, and your opinion on the film is going to come down to what you want to get out of it. What I wanted was awesome music performed well, staged with care, and punctuated by funny, interesting character vignettes. With some (see above) exceptions, that's what I got. With nearly two dozen separate musical numbers, his movie is simply brimming with rock and roll, both musically and thematically, and rarely spends more than two or three minutes between songs, the vast majority of which are staged (if not sung) with a palpable reverence and rapture for the music and the period. If Mama Mia was a love letter to Abba, this film is worship at the altar of 80s Rock. I completely understand why someone would not want to see this movie, or would hate it if they did. But if like me, you appreciate this music for what it is, and don't mind a reasonably flimsy excuse to showcase and celebrate it, then you just might love it.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a playlist to assemble...

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