Thursday, June 21, 2012

That hotel incident with the Cool Whip and the baby llama

I'm probably going to lose any credibility I may have with a lot of you when I say this, but I have (willingly and happily) seen the stage version of Rock of Ages three times. Yes, Rock of Ages. The show that did this on the Tony Awards:

As a serious-minded theater professional, I'm not "supposed" to like jukebox musicals. And yes, of course I'd like to see as much original music on Broadway (and elsewhere) as possible. And maybe even original stories! But I also, first and foremost, want to be entertained when I go to the theater, so if you can manage to show me a good time using recycled music, well, please do! Obviously I believe in the power of music to help tell a story and manipulate an audience (even if you don't like musicals, this applies to background songs and scores in movies and TV too), and songs you already know can do that not just on their own musical terms, but by using their place in the culture and your memory.

Now, I'm not suggesting the show is good in any critical sense, but if you like 80s rock and a particularly silly sense of humor that comes as much from clever vocal arrangements as from actual jokes, then this is the show for you. The songs are great (or sometimes "great") and, every time I've seen it, expertly sung by a mix of Broadway and rock voices. A lot of these songs (the power ballads especially) are already theatrical, already telling a story. "Harden My Heart" and "Here I Go Again" and "Oh Sherrie" don't feel remotely out of place. Obviously if you don't like this music then you will never like this show.

If you do like the songs, though, it all works remarkably well on stage. Live, the show has a rock concert atmosphere (the band is center stage and featured periodically, drinks are delivered to your seat), and is performed with a slightly heightened stage sensibility that allows the actors to walk a fine line between winking and playing real people. Everything is 100% in on the joke, lovingly poking fun at musicals, 80s style, and absurd "We have to save the theater/school/animal shelter/karate dojo and fall in love" 80s movies. It's nostalgic about something I don't think anyone thinks was really very good in the first place. The idea that the whole thing is on Broadway is part of the joke, and that the creators seem to love musicals and MTV in equal measure is all part of the package. It is, as they say, nothin' but a good time.

Now here's the part where I lose credibility with the rest of you: I liked the movie. And I'm pretty much the only person I know who did (of the handful who even saw it). There's no question that I liked the show much much better, but, I mean, it's Rock of Ages. You were expecting Carousel here?

The ad campaign for the movie is absolutely horrible, hiding the fact that the movie is pretty faithful to the show. (One subplot and its set of characters was entirely replaced, and as much as I enjoyed the original version I have to admit the new one kinda makes more sense. The original is by far the silliest thing in the show, and I'm not sure it would have worked on film.) Like many stage-to-film translations, there's a tone problem: The realness of film doesn't allow for the broadness the show has in the theater, which makes everything a little heavier than the material can sustain (or makes the silliness seem like a bad MAD TV sketch) but on the whole all the things I enjoyed about the show were there and enjoyable in the movie.

The ads also had me dreading the cast, none of whom is shown to advantage in the commercials. Alec Baldwin is, to me, the most egregiously miscast, but he didn't bother me much. Though when he sings (or even reacts to music) he seems deeply uncomfortable, like a robot unfamiliar with the human concept of rhythm. Meanwhile, Russell Brand - who I not only hate, I have an inexplicable physical revulsion to - is so perfectly cast that I forgot to loathe him and actually enjoyed his performance. Julianne Hough is very pretty, and has the look of a small town girl trying to make it in Hollywood, if not the charisma of someone who will (spoiler!) ultimately become a star...except she is a semi-star, so what do I know? She sings well, if not exactly on par with the Broadway belters who've played the part before her, but I think it's bizarre that she basically doesn't dance at all, since that's what she's famous for. Diego Boneta is very pretty in a bland way; I fully believed him in the puppy dog love story scenes, and not so much in the "I wanna rock!!" scenes. (These two are the real leads, which makes the ads' focus on the stars all the more misleading.)

And then there's Tom Cruise. Here's the thing: I don't like Tom Cruise. I don't think he's a good actor, and he seems like a pretty reprehensible real life human being. But that's exactly why he's sort of perfect as an insane, creepy superstar: His baggage gives the role a satisfying meta-ness. He's either in on the joke and willing to poke fun at his image, or he's completely clueless, either of which I find satisfying. But the flip side of using Cruise's stardom is that it makes Stacey into a lead, which he's not (this is also kind of the problem with Alec Baldwin, who at this point can't not be Alec Baldwin). In the show, Stacey steals every scene he's in, but he's unquestionably a supporting character. We spend far too much time with him in the movie — and worse, with him not singing. Not that Cruise's heavily processed singing is something to look forward to, but if you know the show and you know the songs are coming, the long book scenes feel interminable. It's a structural problem, not a performance one.

This overall is my biggest problem with the movie, as well as some other recent movie musicals which shall remain nameless. At times it seems like they forgot they were making a musical. Or were afraid that too much singing might scare off audiences. Book scenes are inexplicably expanded, sucking the energy out of the room. The new Catherine Zeta-Jones plot is extremely tight (much more so that the arc it replaced), but for some reason the time gained is taken up by an endless parody of boy bands, which in the show is basically a throwaway joke about a costume.

They've also shied away from the theatricality of the music: making the arrangements less Broadway, using fewer mash-ups (the vocal jokes and the incongruous mash-ups are some of the funniest things in the show in my opinion, playing with then audience's expectations of the familiar songs), but also not letting very many numbers really rock. It's all very American Idol. They've pretty much eliminated the chorus (sorry, Karen Cartwright, ensemble!) and maybe it's just because I know the show so well but I missed them. In the structure of a musical, some numbers just feel like they should be big, and I wanted some random people dancing on the street. The lack of dancing is notable for a film directed by Adam Shankman and starring a SYTYCD alumna. When there's finally a big pole-dancing number (seriously) I was thrilled (seriously), not just because it's impressive (seriously!) but because I was missing that really fun and sexy element of the show. (Also I'm still not over the fact that they cut "Oh Sherrie," which I assume was because of some sort of rights issue, but come on, solve that problem because why else would her name be Sherrie??)

Okay, so none of this sounds like I liked this movie very much, but I'm nitpicking, which is my wont. It's Rock of Ages. Anyone who goes to this movie expecting high art is severely misguided. It's a stupid, fluffy summer comedy, a bizzare tribute to 80s music and movies, and if you like those things I think you'll like this movie. As Dana Stevens, one of the few critics I know of who liked it said, "Once you accept the utter and profound inconsequentiality of Rock of Ages, there’s much to enjoy in it." (Though Dana, all chaps are backless, otherwise they'd be pants.)

This is a much longer review than I usually write here but clearly I'm feeling a little defensive! (Clearly a running theme here lately.) Look, I'm not going to convince anyone to like - or even to see - this movie. But for all its flaws, I had a great fucking time, and that's all I ask of a movie - or a show - like this. Go to a cheap matinee if they still have those where you live, or grab it on Netflix. Have a few drinks. Skip to the songs you like best. Enjoy the monkey. And seriously, don't miss the big strip club scene.


blerg3000 said...

If something about you liking either the show or the film is supposed to surprise me... "We builded this city!"

Adam807 said...

Well, plenty of people who liked the show hated the movie. Also, professionally, I'm supposed to be against jukebox musicals. But if they're enjoyable I just can't get upset about them.