Academic Writing

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rock of Ages

Converting a performance from stage to screen is not by any means uncommon, but that does not mean it’s easy nor is it always successful.  Such is the case with Rock of Ages. Not having seen the Broadway version I cannot comment on the quality of the show, but there’s no way it could be as bad as the movie translation.  When watching something on Broadway, the viewer allows certain suspensions of disbelief that moviegoers do not.  From the first frames when Sherri Christian (Julianne Hough), our lead protagonist, is sitting on the bus escaping her podunk life in Oklahoma to chase her dreams to Hollywood the needed suspension of disbelief is just too great.

The story is this: a lonely, small town girl  goes on a journey (see what I did there?) to Hollywood to explore her dream of being a singer after her grandmother tells her she has a great voice.  In the first moments of getting off the bus in what was then grungy 1980s LA she both gets mugged of suitcase filled with her most prizes possessions – her records (apparently moving cross country with actual clothing is not what was done back then) and she meets Drew (Diego Boneta), the bartender/rock star wannabe that will become the love of her life.  Drew works at The Bourbon Room, a legendary (code: grungy) bar that hosts rock icons and is preparing for the arrival of legendary (code: grungy) rock icon, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).  Jaxx is a whisky-infused, sex crazed and definitely aging rock star who still causes throngs of girls to faint at the mere sight of him.  Bourbon Room owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his partner Lonny (Russell Brand) are relying on this concert to save the bar from bankruptcy and at the same time right wing, anti-fun politicians want to shut it down for being a harbinger of youth corruption. 

Rock of Ages has all the hallmarks of a run of the mill light fare musical romp/romantic comedy show.  It doesn’t offer anything really new or exciting to audiences and the filmmakers, namely director Adam Shankman was so lazy in adapting it from the stage to screen that you don’t need a lot of creativity to imagine how the original stage production was performed.

All that being said, Rock of Ages doesn’t claim to be a piece of cinematic marvel.  It’s campy and silly and it owns it, which almost makes the ridiculousness ok.  You’re immediately thrown into the 80s rock aesthetic from the hair and music to the clothing to the set design.  Honestly, that’s what I was mostly drawn to with this movie.  I wanted to all things 80s and in that regard the movie definitely delivered.  I was very pleasantly surprised by Tom Cruise’s performance – he totally pulls off the aging rock star image.  And (while I’m sure it was enhanced in post-production), he can actually sing.  The music was excellent – but that’s not surprising as they were all 80s-standards and rock classics.  I wanted to sing along and clap at the end of the big numbers, as I’m sure happened in the stage production, but alas, movies goers just don’t do that so I was left mouthing the words and sitting on my hands at the ends of the performances.

What I think was the most interesting thing about Rock of Ages was that it is the latest in a growing list of movies and TV shows which are curating our favorite songs for audiences.  Along with Glee, the upcoming Battlefield America, Pitch Perfect and not to mention musical remakes like Footloose old favorites from the original iterations are revamped in neat, easy to digest packages.  In a sense, television and film are putting together what feels like a modern day mix tape.  In today’s internet age, videos, songs, article, and pictures get shared in an instant across oceans.  However, through this, one of the most sacred sharing devices has been lost: the mix tape.  Mix tapes were given to friends, crushes, and family as a sign of affection and wanting to share something that was important to the person who spent painstaking hours waiting for songs to come on the radio and hitting “record” on their boom boxes.  Sometimes, if you were lucky enough to have the song on a preexisting tape you could record straight from there.  But in any case if someone gave you a mix tape it meant you were special to him or her and they wanted to share something sacred to them.  While the tape itself had meaning, the songs themselves were important as well.  Emotions and feelings of nostalgia are evoked by both the idea of curating songs and the songs themselves - and show runners and filmmakers know this.  By giving us music packaged in this way and as plot devices, audiences are naturally drawn to the vehicle in which they are being presented.  The music is likely the main (if not only) reason for any success of this movie.  The plot is barely existent, the acting is stilted and even the singing is generally weak but the songs are great, fun and familiar and people want fun and familiar.  Without them there’s no way it would have earned a respectable $29 million in under 2 weeks.   

There’s also something to be said about the draw that the 1980s has for people of a certain generation.  People like me, for instance, who were really children of the 1990s and only caught the end of the 1980s can still appreciate and nostalgize that era and for people who were actually teenagers in the 1980s and long for the time of their youth.  Nostalgia and a longing for the past when one can say “the good old days” is a powerful force and helps drive revenue, even if they weren’t really such good old days.  It is also for that reason that Rock of Ages, no matter how “bad” of a movie it is, had a built in audience base of people who will go see anything that can make them feel like they’re either reliving or reconnecting to their pasts.

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