“Rock of Ages” (2012) Review

Unfortunately, I missed the 80s by a hair, but thanks to period pieces like Rock of Ages, I now have highly accurate insight into the hustle and bustle that was life in 1987 Los Angeles. I had no idea that Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” and Extreme’s “More Than Words” were huge hits back then despite neither song being released until the 90s. Or that behind the Hollywood sign was the “it” place to take a girl on a date, completely ignoring the fact that besides the Moon, the Hollywood sign is the most common place for supervillains to hide their secret lairs. Who knew that many of the decade’s biggest hits were in fact written and recorded by Tom Cruise? Though I wouldn’t put it past a man who can also fly and eat planets.

Do NOT underestimate this man’s powers.

All kidding aside, Rock of Ages is incredibly entertaining with an energetic cast, some memorable laughs, and a soundtrack that somehow managed to not instantly spark Nam-level flashbacks of the one time I watched Glee. The acting, while over-the-top, is consistently enthusiastic with extra credit going to Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Russell Brand for their hilarious performances.  The musical numbers, which are largely popular rock songs from the 80s, are big and enjoyable, despite being highly manufactured covers performed mostly by non-singers.

Oh great, now I’m having that flashback.

But for all its entertainment value, Rock of Ages struggles with major fundamental flaws. As most of you already know, it’s based on the Tony-nominated stage musical of the same name. As much as I don’t want this review to be a comparison of the film to its stage counterpart, I don’t think you can effectively talk about the problems with Rock of Ages without discussing the problems of its source material.

I saw Rock of Ages on stage a couple of months ago in Vancouver and while I commend it for the same energy and humour I commend the film for, I didn’t feel like it worked. In my experience, I’ve noted the existence of two types of musicals. The first is a story with original numbers tailored specifically to compliment it. The songs exist for the sole purpose of making the story stronger, notable examples are in the bajillions, but think Oliver, Wicked, Little Shop of Horrors, etc. The second type of musical takes an already existing list of songs and attempts to craft a story around them. Sometimes these two elements are very compatible as is the case in musicals such as Mamma Mia. Other times the result is a weak, disjointed plot that awkwardly tries to accommodate a plethora of unrelated songs, forcibly altering many of their meanings and contexts in the process. Rock of Ages is an example of the latter case. Sure, the music is great, but everything in between is almost unwatchable.

Replace “music” with “action” and I just reviewed Spider-man 3.

Basically, because Rock of Ages doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as a film either. Yes, the film does make some improvements, most notably cutting back significantly on the number of songs in its soundtrack. This allows for less characters, more development of the remaining characters, and an overall more simplified plot, which has its upsides. Rocker Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), for example, gets a total facelift from being an unlikeable, one-dimensional minor character in the play to being a large focus of the film with more dialogue, in-depth exposition, and some redeeming qualities. He turns out to be a highlight of the film. There’s also more room to experiment with the antagonists, which I found interesting. Unfortunately, these changes don’t amount to much for the film doesn’t correct or even address the basic problems with the musical. The story continues to take a backseat to the musical numbers, which still feel awkwardly shoe-horned in much of the time. The stage version is actually very self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, often breaking the fourth wall and making constant meta jokes. This partially compensates for the weak, convoluted relationship between the plot and the songs it accommodates because the cast is basically throwing up their hands and saying, “We know it’s messed up too.” The film, on the other hand, plays the whole thing pretty straight, which makes the song/story incompatibility even more glaring.

The film also adopts the pacing of a stage musical, which leads to some problems. It’s a whirlwind of actions and events that often have little build-up or resolution. It’s forgivable on stage because it’s a small group of people confined to a few hundred square feet and the audience has to use their imagination a little bit. On film, however, there exists the resources to show the audience everything they need to see. Unfortunately, Rock of Ages doesn’t do a good enough job with this. As a result, a lot of what occurs in the film seems to come out of nowhere, feels rushed when it arrives, and then leaves without being followed up on. The film also can’t seem to decide at times whether or not it is a musical. What I mean by this is there’s an inconsistency as to whether this is a world where everyone randomly breaks into song and then goes back to their daily lives without so much as a blink or if these big musical numbers are infrequent occurrences and something to be marveled at. Sometimes, the characters do a song like it’s just another day at the office and other times they’ll go into this huge, energetic number and at the end, all have this look on their faces like “Holy crap, did we all really just do that?”

Rock of Ages is fast-paced, energized, and worth a few good laughs, which overall makes it a very fun film, but anything beyond that falls flat. Rock of Ages is already an incredibly flawed stage musical and while the film makes some positive changes, it ultimately just draws more attention to already-existing problems. It doesn’t work on stage and it doesn’t work on film.

It gets 2.5/5.

PS. No review next week for I will be away on holidays. Check-in around July 5th, for my review of The Amazing Spider-man.

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