Musicals aren’t for everyone, nor is the poodle permed anthemic rock that long ago crossed over from being cool to a nether world of nostalgia bars and ironic use in TV shows.
So when Adam Shankman’s movie version of the musical 'Rock of Ages' ambitiously attempted to combine both it could’ve ended up a cheesier mess than a drunken fondue party in an exploding Dairy Lea factory.
Thankfully Shankman’s film doesn’t do this. Yes it is silly beyond belief, and even sitting within the warped reality of musicals it is unashamedly daft. However the stars are big enough, the musical numbers well executed and the stupidity charming enough to just about pull it off.
The story is a fairly typical one, small town girl and aspiring singer Sherrie (Julianne Hough) moves to the bright lights of LA, and after a mugging meets barman and wannabe rock star Drew (Diego Boneta). They fall in love but it all goes wrong when rock god Stacie Jaxx comes to town to play his final gig with his band Arsenal (Spurs fans may be annoyed by their rival’s name’s constant presence), Drew sees Sherrie in what appears to be a compromising position with Stacie and resolves to take a shot at stardom himself, signing up with Stacie’s slimy manager (Paul Giamatti).
As a side plot the legendary bar where Drew works and Stacie is returning to, is run by ageing rockers Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and Lonnie Barnett (Russell Brand), who are behind on their taxes and being shut down by the sinister mayor and his wife (Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones).
The story is utterly predictable, but that’s not really the point: the aim of the film is to have you laughing at and singing along to its exaggerated rock numbers, not worrying about the fact that a boy meeting a girl, falling in love, falling out and regretting it is an idea more old and gnarled than Keith Richards’ lack of a skin care regime.
Where the film is at its best is in its set pieces – it puts recognisable stars into ridiculous rock n’ roll romps. Particularly brilliant is Catherine Zeta-Jones first number, a heel kicking carnage fuelled version of ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’, and Zeta-Jones steals every scene she’s in.
Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin’s chemistry on screen is possibly one of the funniest things you’ll see this year, despite Brand being unable to decide whether his accent is from West Ham or West Bromwich. Tom Cruise channels his mad self-help guru from ‘Magnolia’ to good effect, especially in partnership with Malin Akerman’s Rolling Stone journalist, to whom he divulges the secrets behind his madness, as well as engaging in some hot tongue in ear action.
The closest thing one can compare 'Rock Of Ages ' to is ‘Mamma Mia’, whose ABBA infused musical mayhem charmed audiences three years ago by being so bonkers that you had to love it. Sadly it is not a comparison that ‘Rock Of Ages’ comes out of well, due to some fairly large problems that detract from the superb insanity of its better moments.
The first is that despite Boneta and Hough being likeable enough, their story is duller than the risible version of the already rubbish ‘Every Rose Has It’s Thorn’ they murder. In a film like this the plot shouldn’t matter much, but when it’s this boring it does.
The second problem is that despite having a rich mythology to draw on, the film steps in to cliché by denoting Stacie Jaxx’s rock and roll craziness with whisky, a pet monkey and floozies. One viewing of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ and a quick look at Keith Moon’s Wikipedia page would’ve provided much funnier examples of rock n’ roll excess for Cruise to go to town on.
Thirdly there are just too many songs; we barely get time to breathe between each rock classic, giving the impression that the film is in thrall to its musical sources rather than using them to good effect.
Last and most importantly there’s a flaw in the whole concept; ‘Mamma Mia’ worked because it embraced its silliness totally, playing on the fact that there’s something inherently hilarious about the Swedish band’s music and running with it.
On the other hand half the plot in ‘Rock of Ages’ revolves around rock being ‘real music’ as opposed to naff pop. This problem is compounded by its central number being ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, the same song that we have been bombarded with twee versions of ever since Glee resurrected it from record shop bargain bins.
As a result a film that in its better moments embraces the hilarity of its music, just ends up turning into the sanitised mush that the outrageousness of this type of ‘rock’ music is supposed to be the antidote to.
This isn’t to say that ‘Rock Of Ages’ is a bad film, nor that one wants more realism, in fact quite the opposite. No, the disappointing thing about ‘Rock Of Ages’ is that it fails to be silly and excessive enough to pull off its central joke and truly leave the audience howling with laughter other than in a few excellent moments.
Stars at the 'Rock of Ages' London premiere...