Rock Candy, by Rita Cannon
Before I say anything else, I need to acknowledge to everyone reading this how much I love musicals. I mean I really love musicals. You’ll notice I did not say I love good musicals. I just love musicals. If people are singing and dancing about their feelings, those feelings become my feelings, and sometimes the critical and analytical parts of my brain just gets swamped in vibrado and jazz squares until they’re rendered useless. This has affected my life in a lot of ways. It’s the reason I own Burlesque on DVD, and still know most of the lyrics from Cats. It’s why I have five different versions of the Rocky Horror soundtrack in my iTunes, and have seen Mamma Mia – the movie and the stage show – all the way through more than once. It’s why, even after a whole season of abstention, when I dropped in on this year’s finale of Glee, I suddenly cared more about Rachel Berry than certain members of my own family, and immediately resolved to start watching again next year. What I’m saying is, if something is a musical, it has to be truly atrocious for me to turn my back on it. I have only encountered two such dire pieces of work in my entire life: the musical episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and 2003’s historically awful From Justin To Kelly. That’s where my bar is.
Well, everyone can relax, because I am pleased to report that Rock of Ages is head and shoulders above From Justin To Kelly.
It isn’t anywhere near as good as Hairspray, director Adam Shankman’s last stage-to-screen musical adaptation. Hairspray had original songs and a witty, energetic script. Rock of Ages recycles radio hits from the eighties, and the script is sporadically funny, but mostly pretty bland, filled with the kind of paper-thin, barn-door-broad characters that never work as well on film as they do onstage. Hairspray, though goofy and over the top, was a vessel for some pretty strong themes – self-acceptance, racial harmony, and music’s power to bring people together. The only idea Rock of Ages has in its head is that eighties rock is awesome, but if you’re a supporter of that idea, then you’ll probably have a pretty good time.
Set in 1987, the film follows Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a bright-eyed ingenue from Oklahoma who’s moved to LA to become a singer. On her first night in town, she meets Drew (Diego Boneta), another aspiring musician who gets her a job waitressing at the famous Bourbon Room. They fall in love over the course of a montage, and everything’s going pretty great until the club gets a visit from debauched rock god Stacee Jaxx (a captivatingly weird Tom Cruise), the lead singer of a band called Arsenal. The Bourbon’s owner (Alec Baldwin) hopes that hosting Arsenal’s last performance before Jaxx goes solo will buoy the financially struggling club. But Jaxx’s antics spell trouble for everyone, especially since Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the do-gooder wife of the mayor, has spearheaded a campaign to shut down the Bourbon and thus eradicate all of the moral turpitude plaguing the Sunset Strip. Along the way, everyone breaks into hits from the likes of Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, and Poison.
The singing ranges from great (Mary J. Blige as a world-weary strip club owner) to bad (Alec Baldwin), but most of it falls in the middle. Hough and Boneta are both perky and attractive enough, but their voices, while certainly capable, are too generic and poppy to serve the rock score very well. The weakness of the story also comes through in the up-and-down nature of the musical numbers. The strongest numbers are the ones that, like the film itself, aren’t about anything except how great rock music is. It’s only when songs are awkwardly repurposed as plot that the strain starts to show and the fun fades away. That’s why an early, character-establishing mashup of “Jukebox Hero” and “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” set in a record store is so thrilling, while Catherine Zeta-Jones’ rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” sung in a church to a poster of Stacee Jaxx, feels nonsensical and kind of embarrassing. This is characteristic of a lot of jukebox musicals, and probably a good argument against turning them into movies at all.
Rock of Ages definitely has issues and trouble spots, and there are certainly people who will balk at the very idea of a movie that’s essentially just celebrity karaoke with a lot of jokes about how nuts the eighties were. That said, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself. If you’re a devotee of rock musicals, eighties kitsch, or gleeful, unapologetic cheesiness in general, you’ll found a fun way to burn two hours in Rock of Ages. And I know you people exist, because I am one of you.