Deep Thoughts with Rock of Ages

Yes, it is SUPER CHEESY. Yes, it is COMPLETELY OVER THE TOP. Yes, it is UTTERLY RIDICULOUS. And yes, even though I find musicals creepy and weird, I do love cheesy 80’s music so I am predisposed to enjoy a musical like Rock of Ages. And I did enjoy it, since I walked into the theater reminding myself that it was going to be all kinds of stupid and at times, even painfully embarrassing. Paul Giamatti is going to sing, I said to myself. PAUL GIAMATTI. This is the headspace you must be in for Rock of Ages. And if you can’t get there, I fully understand it. This is a highly-conditional recommendation. IF you like 80’s hair metal, IF you can roll with a horrendously directed movie that will still deliver on genuine beats of nostalgia and humor, and IF you can overlook the inherent freakiness of people sporadically bursting into song, you MIGHT like Rock of Ages. But keep in mind that Adam Shankman’s (Hairspray) direction is like watching a chimpanzee with space madness repeatedly run into a wall. It can be nearly impossible to watch at times.

And there’s a problem with the young lovers at the center of the story, too. They’re written as airheaded children, yes, but that’s made all the worse by casting vapid performers like Julianne Hough (Footloose) and Diego Boneta (Pretty Little Liars, 90210). Boneta, at least, has some pipes. He can’t act, but he can sing. Hough’s singing is autotune hell—she can’t act AND she sounds like every generic pop princess in the history of ever. I wonder how different Rock of Ages could have been with someone like Anna Kendrick starring as Girl From Small Town (I forget her name). Kendrick’s got some vim in her vigor (see this), and I will always have a what-if about this. I’m probably totally overthinking it, but these kids are the ones that are going to get flattened when grunge happens. Stacee Jaxx will survive—he’s basically a Steven Tyler type—but those kids will get lost in the shuffle when Kurt Cobain arrives. I kept looking for some signifiers of the impending change and got nothing. It was disappointing. Does the movie need it? Strictly speaking, no. Would it have been a better, more interesting movie with that sense of looming doom? YES.

But what we really need to talk about is…

Adam Shankman ruined Tom Cruise’s chance at the role of a lifetime.

Tom Cruise was born to play Stacee Jaxx, and the tragedy of Rock of Ages is that he didn’t really get the opportunity to go full-throttle on that character.

No. Shut up. Go with me on this.

Rock of Ages bombed. A lot of people want to blame Tom Cruise and how godawful annoying he is off screen. I totally believe that in the last decade, Tom Cruise, Movie Star has eclipsed Tom Cruise, Actor to the point of no return. BUT. Rock of Ages’ problems are not his fault. Cruise is easily, EASILY, the best part of the movie. He throws down as Stacee Jaxx, and as silly and ridiculous as he looked “singing” on that balcony in Miami—and in that ill-conceived W Magazine photoshoot—he rocks out as Jaxx. First and foremost, yes, he can sing. Not so well that he should run out and record an album (I’m looking at you, Ewan Macgregor), but well enough to do justice to the music. It’s not like Bon Jovi is a transcendent voice, you know? So he’s square on that score. And all the practice paid off—he looks very natural and believable when commanding a stage. His Cruise-ness isn’t distracting from the Jaxx-ness. They are definitely two different people.

BUT.

Tom Cruise basically is Stacee Jaxx, in real life. He’s a performer who made it big in a previous era and who must reinvent himself to stay relevant to a younger audience whose tastes are not only constantly changing but also becoming increasingly incomprehensible. He’s so famous and successful that he’s become totally isolated by it and he’s surrounded by people who prey on that isolation to keep him, and the money he generates, to themselves. Even if he wants out of his cage, at this point, there is no way out, there’s only finding something to make it bearable. All that could equally describe Cruise or Jaxx, because they’re the same person. When Jaxx says, “You don’t know what it’s like in here,” it’s painful, and we feel it. Kind of.

And that’s the problem with Rock of Ages and the special loss of Cruise’s take on Jaxx. Shankman’s direction is so bad that he sucks the life out of nearly every scene. It’s a testament to Cruise’s commitment and innate understanding of the character that he’s able to salvage as much as he does, because Shankman is actively working against him. Shankman’s direction is so over-choreographed and stylized that very little that is organic manages to come through. For instance, the scene between Jaxx and Rolling Stone reporter Constance (Malin Akerman) starts out spiky, turns seductive, then gets gross. The first half is solid as Jaxx gives a barely-there and difficult interview to Constance, and even though Cruise’s torso is where sea monsters are spawned, he’s pretty effective when he turns on the sex appeal and starts trying to seduce Constance. But when she gives in, their love scene—set to “I Want to Know What Love Is”—is played for laughs, complete with gross tongue-licking and a gag involving an air hockey table.

There are plenty of places to mine humor in Rock of Ages. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand’s characters are funny, the whole boy band sequence is funny, and Jaxx manages a couple moments of natural humor, but overall, Stacee Jaxx is not the one that should be going for laughs. He’s the blighted spot that throws all the 80’s glitz into relief, the reminder that the 80’s was the decade when AIDS became a full-blown epidemic and was also the era of Tiananmen Square, Iran Contra and a Wall Street crash. He’s the warning beacon for those vapid kids that there is an actual price to be paid for that kind of fame. Stacee Jaxx is dirty and gritty and wasting away from the inside out and at points, you can see that Cruise is tapped into that. That he gets that. But then, just as quickly, Shankman’s direction gets between Cruise and his character and we’re left with a cartoon somewhere in between the bubblegum and the dirt.

And that’s my lasting impression of Rock of Ages. Tom Cruise was this close to achieving something really special with Stacee Jaxx and Adam Shankman shat all over it.

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5 thoughts on “Deep Thoughts with Rock of Ages

  1. Kim

    100% agree with you. There was so much potential here for something really great and it was so completely lost.

    While Shankman’s directing was certainly the death shroud here, I think some of the credit for the failure needs to fall on Justin Theroux’s writing. His inability to write believable, sincere dialogue between the two main characters was glaring. I found myself biting my tongue to keep from yelling ‘NO ONE WOULD EVER SAY THAT?’

    It’s really too bad. This could have been one epic movie and it was totally wasted.

    1. sunny

      I was all suited up to adore this movie, and I just… didn’t. Please tell me again why Julianne Hough is a thing? Is Ryan Seacrest really that powerful in Hollywood? She’s cute as a button, but man she cannot sing. At all. And acting like Pollyanna the whole movie grated on my last nerve. I was much more into watching Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin together than having any sort of interest in her relationship with the Diego kid (who was made for the boy-ee band, not for rockin’ at the Bourbon).

      I really appreciated Tom’s efforts here — he, Russell and Alec were the only characters who weren’t entirely caricatures — but I found Tom’s lack of voice to be a problem. Or maybe it was overly autotuned? It just sounded really thin to me.

      Also, somehow I TOTALLY missed Giamatti was going to be singing in this movie. Probably the highlight for me.

  2. Emster

    My biggest problem – aside from every actor telegraphing every move – was that they just tried to cram too much crap into it. It seemed as though every number was intercut with some other action rather than just enjoying the cheese factor of the thing.

    I did, however, appreciate Sebastian Bach and Kevin Cronin in the crowd scene during the “We Built This City” mashup. It was a little sad that I think I was the only one who recognized them.

  3. Tom, I love you and is yet to be disappointed by you because you take any role and make them yours. You blew me away as Stacee Jaxx and as cheesy as the film was, Tom, you can come pour some sugar on me anytime!

  4. Bob Sawyer

    I think the directing is not so bad as the film editing. The director did a fine job of communicating deliberately two-dimensional characters to the actors. The satire is clear from start to finish and the actors like Zeta-Jones, Baldwin and Cruz play their parts with no deliberate humor in order to make the satire work. It was the director who came up with the idea that Jaxx is so lost in the role of the rock star that he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Cruz, who knows exactly what he wants nonetheless knew what that means–Crux himself is a prisoner of his persona as a movie star.
    My problem is that most of the time the cinematography is at odds with the emotions of the singing, This effectively wrecks the romance, I agree that the boy rocker can’t act. I disagree that Julianne Hough can’t sing. In fact, she has the perfect voice for a female onstage vocalist in a rock band. What the would be country star is not is a female lead vocalist for musical style ballads. The director was right to always mix her work with out of others.

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