Movies: Rock of Ages. Will It Rock You?

He Will. He Will. Rock You ♫ (Tom Cruise in "Rock of Ages")



At a recent press screening in Manhattan, heavily attended by the gays, the choreographer turned So You Think You Can Dance judge turned movie director Adam Shankman cheerfully introduced the screening of his latest stage-to-screen musical ROCK OF AGES. It's his first musical since the exuberant Hairspray (2007) and he charmingly expressed his nerves and excitement about showing it off. He invited the assembled to not take the movie too seriously ("dumb fun!") and sing along with it if they felt the urge. I was sitting near the front and as Shankman bounded up the stairs to exit from the back, he shouted out  'Oh, and I'm gay!' as a "no shit" style punchline. The crowd laughed and the lights went out. 

The energy of Shankman's introduction can't have hurt the screening but his invitation to sing-along proved redundant. It doesn't take long for the movie to send out its own karaoke invitation.  In the jukebox musical's first number we meet a small town girl, living in a lonely world, who takes a midnight train bus going anywhere. Her name is Sherry Christian (Julianne Hough) but she's not exactly going anywhere. She's purposefully headed to Los Angeles to try to make it in the music business. No sooner has she begun singing "Sister Christian" (get it? Um… haha?) than the unnamed extras on the bus start grabbing solo lines from the verses until the whole bus is singing about Sister Christian. Her time has come!  

Hough & Bonita as 'Sherry & Drew'  in "Rock of Ages"

Upon her arrival in the big city, this girl from the sticks lands both a new job and a new bartender/songwriter boyfriend (Cam Gigandet) at a famous club operated by a beleaguered old pro (Cher) and her gayish sidekick (Stanley Tucci). The club is having financial trouble thanks in part to a mercenary money man (Eric Dane) and hopes that a big voice (Christina Aguilera) will resurrect its fortu--- 



My apologies. Given the identical plots I kept wishing I was watching Burlesque instead. Here's a handy chart in case I lost you.


Like Hairspray before it, Rock of Ages has a healthy sometimes wickedly funny sense of humor and dynamite choreography, but the comparisons (and most of the praise) end there. Hough and Boneta are attractive leads but you need star power and chemistry to headline and they're as exciting as cardboard multiplex advertisements once they're sharing their scenes with bonafide movie stars like Catherine Zeta -Jones and Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise is so game for his role as a drugged up rock legend Stacee Jaxx that he enters the movie in assless chaps (his own idea according to Shankman). His star turn is both the worst thing and the best thing about the movie given that he's supremely watchable and only half costumed but also arguably way too intense / emotionally broken for the jokiness the movie is aiming for. Malin Akerman is his romantic foil — a Rolling Stone 'slutty librarian' type of reporter. Akerman is equally game to slapstick the sex up but I kept wishing an actress with a more distinctive gift for goofy carnality and Cruise Chemistry would have played the role instead. Was Cameron Diaz busy? Tone deaf? 

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who should only make musicals until she drops (by gunpoint if necessary) gets the cartoon energy right. She plays a pious activist with a secret who wants to shut down the sinful club. Sadly, Shankman doesn't seem to know what he's got in front of him in Zeta-Jones (used only fleetingly and not well at all after her secret comes out.) 

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Church Ladies sing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot"

Shankman is weirdly even more clueless about Mia Michaels' choreography even though he's a choreographer himself. The numbers are so frenetically edited (even Zeta-Jones's Pat Benatar routine) that they make Moulin Rouge! feel absolutely restrained. And Moulin Rouge! had valid reasons for its chaos aesthetic!  Shankman and his beleaguered editors (so. many. cuts) jerk so frequently from camera angle to camera angle and from one blurry close-ups of faces in motion to another that you'd think they were making a movie about rave culture rather than a movie about 80s hair metal power ballads. Where is the slow build, power reveal and repetitive totemic iconography of those aggressively dumb-fun classic songs in the visuals for this dumb-fun movie? The movie is such a chaotic mess that it's often more enjoyable to close your eyes and listen ….and Adam, baby, Adam. We have iTunes for that!

To be fair to Shankman, almost everyone making musicals these days needs these two lessons. One in basic human anatomy, the other in filmmaking

  1. Dancing takes place in the body, not in the face. 
  2. The purpose of 24 frames per second is to simulate actual movement, not to show us 24 different pictures.

I have no idea whether audiences will respond to Rock of Ages which is enjoyable and funny in spurts. Its curio value may well play better at home where you can sing along or ignore at your leisure free from off key embarrassment. It's easy to imagine it being a huge hit at a karaoke themed thirty or fortysomething slumber party but who throws those?  If Rock of Ages would like to become a smash hit I suggest sending Adam Shankman on tour with it to introduce each and every screening. That'd be a grueling tour for any director with a movie on 3,000 plus screens several times a day but if anyone has the inexhaustible energy for it it might well be Shankman.


Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.