Wednesday 13 June 2012

Stop me if you've heard this one before: "Rock of Ages"

Forgive me a moment of self-reference, but at the end of my Mamma Mia! review back in 2008, I warned anyone who happened to be passing through that "every penny you hand over [for this] will only bring us closer to a big-screen version of Our House starring Danny Dyer, or of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, starring Russell Brand and Justin from The Darkness." Which just goes to show you can't be exactly right all the time in this business, but the point broadly holds: the earlier film's monstrous commercial success presumably made it easier for Warner Bros. to greenlight another jukebox musical in Rock of Ages, thus subjecting us all to Catherine Zeta Jones warbling "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and (yes) Russell Brand covering Twisted Sister. 

While we're pointing fingers (instead of lighter-waving), Adam Shankman's film also evidently owes much to the Glee effect: its composer-in-chief turns out to be Adam Anders, who orchestrated the music for that notable recent TV hit, and has here mashed up and rehashed enough late 70s and 80s soft rock songs to vulcanise a time-worn plot about a couple of young lovers crossing paths on the Sunset Strip of that era. Sherrie (Aniston-replacement Julianne Hough) is just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world; Drew (tousled newcomer Diego Boneta, reared in the same lab that gave us Zac Efron and the kid from the Footloose remake) is a city boy, almost certainly born and raised in South Detroit. Yes, we've reached the point where Hollywood has started taking character notes from old Journey records; at this rate, we'll get a film based on Stan Ridgway's "Camouflage" before the decade's out, and live to see Paul Haggis adapting Richard Marx's "Hazard" for the Weinsteins.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Glee - and both have been on display in its current third season - it operates from a bedrock of sincerity that has traditionally allowed it to attribute genuine feelings to its more-or-less archetypal characters. In Rock of Ages, the performers are alloted one note to play for the entire two hours; the sensation is of a series of solos that never quite coalesce into a satisfying experience. Alec Baldwin (as Dennis Dupree, owner of the nightclub at which much of the action plays out) pulls "pursed-lipped camp" from the hat, which is still preferable to sidekick Russell Brand's shot at "brummie Russell Brand". Zeta Jones is effectively here as Tipper Gore, in a down-with-metal subplot that rather gets lost amid all the open-quotation-marks-fun-close-quotation-marks, and only re-emerges to point out that, hey, even stick-in-the-muds like her gave head for backstage passes once. Hough and Boneta are hair and teeth, respectively; Malin Akerman - making a career of taking roles smarter actresses have surely turned down - plays a Rolling Stone journalist sent to interview Tom Cruise's priapic rock god Stacee Jaxx in a run of scenes that threaten to become as interesting as Cruise's cross-examination by April Grace in Magnolia, but end with chick straddling rocker on a pool table anyway. Clearly, some rock creation myths are not to be challenged or subverted in any way.

You could argue the key thing here isn't how the principals act, but how they sing - or at least you could if this hadn't been rendered a moot point by Anders' demonstrable fondness for overdubbing and Autotune. What they're singing, however, may not be, and the danger with Rock of Ages - practically the only danger in a committee-compiled, corporate-approved, 12A-rated product like this - is that if you don't know these songs, or don't much care for these songs, whatever kind of a joke this is will sail past your ears at a considerable rate of knots. Say what you like about Mamma Mia! - and we did - its selections from the ABBA songbook were gold-plated classics of the form, such that it almost didn't matter what Pierce Brosnan or Julie Walters were doing to them. Only the most tin-eared of Absolute Rock aficionados could make a similar claim for Rock of Ages' less-than-heady revival of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is" or - good god, really? - Extreme's "More Than Words". 

One problem is that soft, poodle or cock rock, with their predilection for posturing and performance (musical, theatrical, sexual), might just be a specifically American phenomenon: the repertoire here consists of the kind of MOR slop that once clogged up AM radio, where we had the shipping forecast and Test Match Special to help pass the hours spent decorating the spare room. British viewers may, accordingly, find themselves longing for a bracing jolt of Motorhead, Priest or even Quo to up the tempo; readers in Abu Dhabi, Beijing and Ouagadougou are advised to find alternative means of entertainment altogether. There were, after all, reasons why Def Leppard could become millionaires in the States, and yet walk unmolested through the streets of their native Sheffield; this was a moment when very ordinary looking and sounding blokes were transformed by the spotlight into living, breathing, thrusting legends, even if they were singing nothing more profound or lasting than "Pour Some Sugar On Me"

The film acknowledges as much, but in a phoney sort of way, setting up a false opposition between the rockers and the more chiselled boy bands taking over the scene - as though REO Speedwagon and Mötley Crüe were any more vital than New Kids on the Block - and then fluffing the joke anyway, in getting the decidedly god-like and non-ordinary Cruise up on stage to sing "Sugar". Shankman, the choreographer-turned-director who gave us some fun with the Hairspray redo, goes big on bright lights and energy, but the musical numbers are cut together more peppily than any of his dialogue scenes, which drag their heels something rotten. (In this respect, "Don't Stop Believin'" provides not just Rock of Ages' core, but its pithiest review: "Oh, the movie never ends/It goes on and on and on and on...") Maybe the results will play to middle-aged men the way Mamma Mia! did to women of a certain age (which we critics never did see coming), but taken on its own terms, Rock of Ages is flimsy and synthetic, and somewhat over-produced for its own purpose. Neither as bad-bad as its jukebox predecessor, nor - fatally - as bad-good, it finally emerges as cinematic MOR, asserting that God gave rock 'n' roll to us to ease Tom Cruise and Russell Brand through their respective mid-life and mid-career crises. Thank Christ for grunge.

Rock of Ages opens nationwide today. "The Prettiest Eyes", Paul Haggis's adaptation of "Hazard", is slated for a late 2013 release.

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