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Rock of Ages

I grew up in a very musical household. I was raised on a steady diet of songs from all genres, particularly classic rock. I can’t remember a time when The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, Dire Straits, Heart, Kansas, The Alan Parsons Project, and others in that vein weren’t in heavy rotation on the CD player in my dad’s car. As for my mom, she’s more knowledgeable and passionate about stage musicals than anyone I know, except maybe my sister.

Yet in such a family, I somehow wound up the only one who hasn’t yet seen “Rock of Ages” live. I don’t remember how that happened, but I’m guessing it was some kind of scheduling mix-up. Anyway, I made sure to have my mom on hand as I watched the film adaptation, to provide some perspective and knowledge about both versions. She was of the opinion that Rock of Ages was an outstanding adaptation… though it was pretty much a completely different show. Thanks for clearing that up, Mom.

For my part, I’ll put it to you this way: In the movie’s very first scene, we meet Sherrie (Julianne Hough) on a bus to Hollywood. She starts singing a bit of “Sister Christian.” Her fellow passengers — one at a time — each sing a line from the song, then continue about their commute like nothing happened. I tell you this — and the movie shows you this — as a warning of just how low the bar for logic has been set.

The movie doesn’t have a particularly strong premise. Hell, the movie doesn’t have a story that you haven’t already seen a hundred times. It doesn’t have any nuanced characters, deep themes, or original songs. What it does have is a heaping ton of mindless entertainment. The movie doesn’t try to hide the threadbare nature of its story, but instead revels in it. The result is two hours of campy, over-the-top, slickly produced giddiness.

It’s patently obvious that everyone in the cast and crew had a blast making this picture. Their enjoyment is so palpable that it’s absolutely infectious. Take Catherine Zeta-Jones, for example. She’s in this movie, but she’s not acting. I don’t even know if there’s a word for what she’s doing in this film. I’ll have to use an analogy: Acting is to a lighter as Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance is to a bomber full of napalm. The scenery’s already digesting, and Zeta-Jones is on to chewing the celluloid. And it looks like she’s having a great time doing it.

As for Tom Cruise, there are really only two things to say about his performance here. First is that the guy has a surprisingly good singing voice. Second is that Cruise played Stacee Jaxx by simply turning up the crazy as far as it could go and yanking off the knob. And remember, this is Tom Cruise we’re talking about. His crazy knob goes waaaaaay past eleven. You thought he was over-the-top in Tropic Thunder? Gentle reader, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The movie also features a solid turn from Alec Baldwin, who hasn’t exactly been shy about humiliating himself for comedy in the past few years. He works wonderfully off of Russell Brand, who fits right in as a camera-mugging maniac. Mary J. Blige does very nicely for herself in a rather thankless role, and Paul Giamatti (surprising no one) plays a total sleazeball.

All of these actors were prominently featured in the film’s advertising, so I knew where to spot them going in. I was significantly more surprised to see Bryan fucking Cranston appear just long enough to make an ass of himself (he doesn’t sing, though). Then Eli Roth poked his head in for a cameo, though hell if I could tell you why. I also saw Tobey Maguire credited as a producer, and I’d love to know how that happened. Fortunately, to balance all of this out, a number of legitimate rock ‘n roll gods appeared for a cameo during the “We Built This City” number. Just try to count them all.

Anyway, this is entirely beside the central point of the film. The movie, after all, is essentially your routine coming-of-age romance at its core, but with one small yet important twist: The romantic leads don’t hate each other at first. Though they do separate at a point in the movie only to get back together, they don’t spend the entire film learning how to love each other. They meet cute, they get together, they have a brief yet beautiful relationship, and then they break up. This was a great approach.

I’ve grown to dislike movies in which the two romantic leads don’t get along at first. Their eventual love affair is made that much harder to believe when it inevitably happens in a mere two hours’ running time. I find it much more relatable, more enjoyable, and more closer to reality when two romantic leads have some amount of chemistry and overt interest in each other at the very outset. Furthermore, in this particular case, seeing our two leads happy and together leads to a far greater emotional punch when the breakup happens.

But what of the leads themselves? Well, Julianne Hough is rapidly proving herself as a surprising new talent. She’s sexy, she’s sassy, she’s energetic, and it’s always great to find a new actor who can sing and dance. Granted, her singing voice isn’t exactly spectacular, but she’s certainly on par with the talent being found in reality TV and the pop charts nowadays.  I’ll also grant that she’s not the strongest actress her age (I’d rather watch a performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Jennifer Lawrence, or Ellen Page any day), but Hough has certainly earned enough goodwill that I’ll grant another few films to find her stride.

Opposite Hough is Diego Boneta, and I confess I had absolutely no idea who this guy was. Based on my minimal research, it appears that Boneta found a bit of success as a pop singer and a soap opera star in his native Mexico before coming to America, where he made recurring appearances in “Pretty Little Liars” and the reboot of “90210.”

Given that this is Boneta’s film debut, I shouldn’t be surprised that I hadn’t heard of him. But I like him. He’s got a strong singing voice, the camera loves him, and he’s got quite a bit of acting talent. I’m not sure how much weight that carries, since he was acting opposite Julianne Hough, but still. He played his part very well, and I’ll be interested to see where his career goes from here.

Moving on to the nitpicks, let’s start with Malin Akerman. She plays a reporter from the Rolling Stone, so she’s of course very conservative and professional in her dealings with Stacee Jaxx. But come on. This is Malin freaking Akerman. The Catholic schoolgirl act isn’t fooling anyone. So of course her clothes and her thick glasses come off very quickly. I wish I could applaud the movie for toeing the edge of more mature territory, but it doesn’t work here. The film tries to present sexual content in a PG-13 way, and it tries to play the makeout scenes as romantic and comedic at the same time. It doesn’t work. The clashing intentions don’t mesh at all.

I’d also add that Akerman used to be the lead singer for an alternative rock band called The Petalstones. With a history like that, it’s a disappointment that the film didn’t call on her to sing more.

Then there’s the matter of Zeta-Jones. I’ve already talked about her performance (for lack of a better term) as Patricia Whitmore, wife of Los Angeles’ newly-elected mayor and Christian moral crusader. She’s a great deal of fun to watch in this film, but it’s patently obvious that her role was invented for the movie. Her storyline could have been cut from the film entirely and not a thing would have changed.

I also take issue with Zeta-Jones’ character leading choruses of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” These women are taking a stance against rock music, proclaiming to all the world that rock music is evil, so why are they singing rock music? Maybe it’s an implicit statement about the characters’ hypocrisy, or maybe it’s just because this movie set an extremely low bar for logic. I don’t know.

By a similar token, I take issue with the movie’s placement of “Jukebox Hero.” It’s sung by the starry-eyed aspiring musician played by Diego Boneta. The only problem is that “Jukebox Hero” is about a musician who successfully made the journey from rags to riches. It’s okay for Boneta’s character to sing about buying a beat-up six-string — particularly at the beginning, where this number is placed — but it gets very confusing when he gets to the part about passing his own shadow by the backstage door. Dude, at this point in the film, you are the shadow! But again, no logic.

Still, my prize for the most awkwardly-placed song probably goes to “Any Way You Want It.” This is set at the film’s nadir, when both of our young protagonists are forced to compromise themselves personally and artistically just to keep above water. Why on Earth is this powerful, energetic love song being played against the darkest point in the film?!

Finally, there are a couple of songs here and there which aren’t presented as covers, but played via their original studio recordings. In this movie, I call foul. It would be perfectly okay anywhere else, but that’s just cheating here. Seriously, when Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” — the movie’s namesake song! — has to be played in its original form without any connection to the story itself, something is very wrong.

Those gripes aside, the music in this film is phenomenal. The production is great, the mashups are very well-done, and there are even a few interesting twists here and there ([singing] “‘For a smile, they can share the night…’ [stops singing] From there, it goes on and on and on.”). But what really sells the music is its presentation. The choreography is wonderful, the lighting is great, and the sound design is top-notch. Most importantly, there’s a great deal of heart on display. The vocalists are pouring their hearts into these songs, and it really shows.

All told, I enjoyed Rock of Ages, almost in spite of myself. The movie is aggressively simplistic, making no apologies for its threadbare story. In point of fact, the filmmakers compensate for a simple story by cramming the movie with over-the-top silliness and camp. There’s no hint of logic or restraint anywhere in sight, but the filmmakers get away with that because so much obvious care and talent was put into the music. The cast and crew of this movie constantly look like they’re having the time of their goddamn lives, enjoying themselves so much that I couldn’t help enjoying myself with them.

It’s a light, funny, breezy time at the movies that’s at once incredibly fun and almost instantly forgettable. Given how disappointing the summer has been so far in terms of movies, that counts for a lot. Definitely worth a look.

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