Once upon a time, thanks to Ian Dury and two members of the Blockheads, we had a music single called Sex, Drugs & Rock N’ Roll. The song was written and produced in 1977. At the time of its release, this song didn’t do much business. But the critics liked it. From there, with an assist from Axel Rose of Guns N’ Roses in the 1980′s, it became a staple of punk rock, and beyond that it became symbolic of an era, as well as an alternate lifestyle.
In 2012, the terms Sex, Drugs, & Rock N’ Roll might still be in the public consciousness, but more likely to be heard these days is Sweat, Ear-Splitting Music, & Puke. That’s a quote from Dennis Dupree, the fictional owner of a fictional rock club, The Bourbon Room, located on the famed Sunset Strip, in Hollywood circa 1987. This club, its employees and its patrons are in a film called Rock of Ages which opened in theaters across the country yesterday, June 15th, 2012.
Adapted from the musical of the same name (book by Chris D’Arienzo) and still playing on Broadway and theatrical venues elsewhere, Rock of Ages is what you might call a Jukebox Movie Musical. The difference between a Musical and a Jukebox Musical is that a musical has its own original music, while the jukebox version has music originally created by others and not specifically for the production.
Showcasing some of the best-loved and most popular rock music from the 80′s, the film, Rock of Ages has at its center a group of slender stories stitched together. We have the story of a struggling rock venue, The Bourbon Room, a club modeled after the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Strip. Club Owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin has the role) is looking at serious problems including problems with the IRS over back taxes. He’s also facing the wrath of the conservative wife of LA’s Mayor, one Patricia Whitmore, a Tipper Gore type, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. She and her cohorts believe that The Bourbon Room, and other clubs of the same stripe, and the Strip itself, are far too decadent to be tolerated. She’s out to shut them down.
There is a newcomer in town, literally moments and steps off the bus from Tulsa, Oklahoma. She’s Sherrie Christian and is played by Julianne Hough. In her first few minutes in town, she’s mugged by a snatch and grab artist which resulted in the loss of her only suitcase. This event was witnessed by one Drew Boley, who happens to work in the bar at The Bourbon Room, and he gets her a job as waittress at the club. All in the film’s first five minutes. Welcome to LA, honey.
Not coincidentally both Sherrie and Drew (played by Diego Boneta) are aspiring singers. Also as you might expect, they’re going to fall in love.
Then we have the rock idol, the larger than life Stacee Jaxx. He’s played by Tom Cruise. Jaxx is rock’s biggest star at the time,
and he comes with a manager Paul Gill (played by Paul Giammatti), a pair of body guards, a limo, a man-friday called Hey Man (an actual baboon), assorted groupies, a suite at the Chateau Marmont, and a cornucopia of problems.
They’re all going to cross paths when Jaxx is booked at The Bourbon Room in a deal between Gill and Dupree. The show is billed as Jaxx’s last ever performance with his band called Arsenal – Jaxx believes his future is best served as a solo performer, or he and his band decided to pursue different goals, or the band got tired of his antics, or his manager maneuvered the whole thing – pick one it doesn’t much matter.
Let’s add in Malin Akerman as the Rolling Stone Magazine reporter Constance Sack, Mary J. Blige as the strip club owner Justice Charlier, and Russell Brand appears as Lonny who is Dupree’s club manager and more.
Now you’ve got pretty much all of the important players. As for the plot – shake, stir, mix, or even toss like a salad – it doesn’t much matter as these streaming stories are all just background to the music.
If you were in your late teens, 20′s or 30′s in the 1980′s then the music from that time is probably deeply embedded within you. This film will have you clapping your hands, tapping your feet, humming along, and generally reliving your youth. You remember those days – you were invincible, you were convinced you were immortal, and you lived with the constant thoughts of ‘when is the next party’. Here’s just a short list of the unforgettable tunes and the artists who made them famous in the film:
We’re Not Gonna Take It (Anymore) (1984) Twisted Sister
We Built This City (On Rock N Roll) (1985) Starship
Wanted Dead or Alive (1986) Bon Jovi
I Want to Know What Love Is (1984) Foreigner
Anyway You Want It (1980) Journey
Hit Me With Your Best Shot (1979) Pat Benatar
Can’t Fight This Feeling (1984) REO Speedwagon
Every Rose Has Its Thorn (1988) Poison
Keep in mind that these songs and a dozen or so more, are not sung by their original artists. All are done by the cast. Right – this includes Tom Cruise, who is electric as the rock idol when he sings, or is on stage performing. You will be quite surprised about how much you enjoy his performance. When he’s off stage, meaning when his character isn’t performing – this is the rock star that most of us don’t get to see – Cruise is low-key, sodden, withdrawn or worse most of the time. When he’s not pursuing women that is. Naturally that’s not correct either – he needn’t pursue – they’d line up for blocks for the opportunity.
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Paul Giammatti hit home runs as the dowdy Mrs Mayor with a secret past, and the oily, slimy, greedy mf who manages Stacee Jaxx. As does Malin Akerman as the reporter.
Alec Baldwin looks the part, but his performance seems a bit less precise than we’re used to seeing from him. Blige and Brand are fine but they’ve not got a lot of screen time or depth to their characters.
The leads, Drew and Sherrie are probably the weakest of the ensemble. I liked Sherrie more than Drew, but I think that may have to do with their characters rather than the performances of Julianne and Diego.
All of this … filled from beginning to end to end with songs, musical was directed by Adam Shankman, who has the TV Series Glee on his resumé, and the film Hairspray. In 1987, Shankman was only 23 years old – so don’t bet against this as being a factor of how he came to the project.
So despite this being a film about a youthful culture and lifestyle – this film isn’t going to appeal as much to today’s young people as it will to their parents. In fact, as I looked around the packed theater today, it was mostly filled by people already collecting their social security benefits, or those not far from doing so.
Don’t let the mixed reviews stop you from seeing this film. If you lived when those songs were in your head when they weren’t on the radio, then this film is for you. The strengths of this film aren’t the story, or the actors, or even their performances – this is simply all about the music. Having said that – if this music isn’t your cup of tea, then you should give the film a pass.
Three point seven five is the rating. [EDIT: JUNE 18th - Weekend Box Office report: Rock of Ages limped home 3rd trailing Madagascar 3, and Prometheus. The take was a tepid $15.1 Million which was less than half the business that Madagascar 3 did]. You can preview the film in the trailer, right below: