Adapting a stage musical into a film is a notoriously tough trick to pull off at the best of times, all the more so when the director dares to fill their cast with more name actors and celebrities than classically trained singers. The result, ostensibly, can range from Chicago to Mamma Mia, with Adam Shankman’s (Hairspray) energetic take on Rock of Ages falling somewhere between the two – an unsophisticated but enthusiastic love letter to classic rock.
From the opening tune – a brief take on Guns N’ Roses’ Paradise City, performed by Tom Cruise – it is clear that director Shankman has no plans in making a down-the-nose self-parody of the source material. Though undeniably tongue-in-cheek in fully surrendering the campy, even cheesy nature of much of this music, the songs are genuinely, soulfully performed by a cast that, above all else, is totally game for it.
The story begins as beautiful, doe-eyed country bumpkin Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) moves to Hollywood with dreams of making it as a singer. Here she meets Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), an aspiring musician also, who works as a barman at the town’s most happening music venue, The Bourbon Room. Amid the backdrop of the cut-throat music industry, they fall for each other, though their love is tested by the intense nature of the business.
Every minute that Rock of Ages focuses on the music – covering the likes of Poison, Bon Jovi, Scorpions, and Journey – it is a barnstormer; a sensational, often very funny spectacle. Those moments that it does not – of which there are far too many – make the 123-minute run time feel a little flabby, particularly as the script does not appear to have an especially firm grasp of its characters. For one, Tom Cruise’s veritable rock deity Stacee Jaxx takes far too long to turn up in full measure, and while he steals most scenes he is in – by virtue of both the charisma of the man and a surprisingly strong singing voice – he dips in and out of the pic far too much.
Similarly, the central love story between Hough and Boneta’s characters is not only predictable, but totally unfussed, with Boneta inexplicably disappearing mid-film for a good twenty-or-so minutes. In the interim, Jaxx’s existential troubles are juggled with a hyper-Conservative politician’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) campaigning to close the club, and Sherrie’s dabbling in an alternate career path. Key is the film’s inability to form these strands into a coherent whole, and as such, the various twists and turns do little to stimulate the heart or mind. One brief sequence which satirises the vacuous boy-band boom of the mid-80s, however, is pure gold.
All that said, the propulsive nature of the music accounts for a lot, and is likely to satisfy fans of both the original bands and the new performers. Hough and Boneta – the two classically-trained stars of the bunch – are ostensibly the strongest of show, yet the likes of Cruise, Zeta-Jones, Malin Åkerman and Russell Brand demonstrate some serious pipes in their respective ditties. Alec Baldwin, playing The Bourbon Room’s owner, even chimes in for a few lines at one point – surprisingly well, no less – while Paul Giamatti, as Jaxx’s unscrupulous manager, gets just a few words which are, in all frankness, hilarious in their awfulness. Simply, though, there are no Mamma Mia-grade catastrophes here – amusing as that was – and with the likes of Mary J. Blige providing brief support, there seems to be a serious effort made to concoct an entertaining experience that is anything but serious. Case in point, keep your eyes peeled for two truly bizarre cameos from Eli Roth and Kevin Nash.
Much can be said for something that knows exactly what it is, and makes no apologies for that. While Shankman’s film might not feel as narratively cohesive as his previous musical, and there are some definite editing issues during some of the numbers, it is loud, lively, and ultimately quite the feel-good romp. After all, it would seem remiss if rock n’ roll wasn’t a little rough around the edges.
As a story, Rock of Ages is all over the place, but the performers are clearly having a blast, and their enjoyment is infectious.
Rock of Ages is released in the UK on June 13th and in the US on June 15th.