Monday, July 2, 2012

movie review: 'rock of ages'

Short version: it's a glorious disaster of a film, both parody and completely straight. There's no surprise this film is failing catastrophically at the box office, and there are some good reasons for that. The leads aren't very good, the songs aren't great, and the storyline is a mountain of cliches - but then again, if you've seen the musical, you'd know with the last one that that's the point. So yeah, it's another 'So Bad It's Good' movie, and... ah, hell, I enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun, and frankly, though  I can't see the movie is anywhere close to good, some scenes in that movie are kind of glorious. Plus, Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances in decades.  

Longer version...

Let me tell you a story.

I first got into heavy metal when I was about fourteen, mostly due to the fact that I had heard people had made songs about characters in the fantasy novels I was reading (the Dragonlance series, for those who care). Now since most of this metal was inspired by fantasy, it tended towards the power and symphonic genres, and for the most part, it was cheesy as all hell. I can admit this - bands like Nightwish and Blind Guardian and Kamelot and Dragonforce and Within Temptation have a certain factor of ridiculousness that makes them easy as hell to make fun of. It's an easy joke, and it's one I don't have much of a problem with. Now granted, there will always be stuff that will rise above genre and achieve acclaim, but suffice to say there's a reason why metal is seldom treated with any respect, even in an era where pop, country, and even techno have critical acclaim.

However, the Adult Swim show Metalocalypse often touches on a theme that tends to be unexplored in the discussion of heavy metal, or indeed most hard rock of the past forty years. This theme is simple: that kind of music might be silly or cheesy or a little ridiculous, but if you're the right mindset, it can be epic and powerful and just as moving as the more serious and critically accepted grunge and alt rock most people prefer. The thing is, most people can't get into that headspace, mostly due to their disdain for metal as a 'low' musical genre, or their own pride preventing them from being a part of the 'joke' and potentially being laughed at for the acceptance of actually liking something silly. In fact, you can stretch this general concept to cover a lot of material - the bubblegum pop of the 90s, anything tinged with fantasy or sci-fi, or even musicals.

Continuing my story from above and fast forwarding a few years, I began listening to a lot of musicals in the fall of 2009, and around that time I discovered a jukebox musical called Rock of Ages. It was a musical filled with hit songs from the hair metal era, and I rapidly took a liking to it. What made the musical special - at least to me - was that it seemed to be in on the 'joke' - it accepted the cheesiness and silliness of the hair metal era (doubled by the fact that the songs were in a musical, of all things) and played things for laughs, but it also ran with the fact that in the right mindset, the music was fucking glorious. It didn't matter that Don't Stop Believing or Here I Go Again or We Built This City were overused, corny, and often times a little silly - they were going to play it straight and for the people who could get into it, it would be glorious and epic and fun. Remember fun rock music? It was like that before the early 90s came along and told everyone in the rock industry that they had to be serious, and maybe (just maybe) the simultaneous declines of rock of all striipes on the charts is because nobody is having any fun anymore.

For another example, do you want to know why I find it so damn hard to get into the Foo Fighters? It's because on every bloody track I try to listen to, Dave Grohl and his band aren't having fun - they're being all morose and serious and bitter, because ROCK MUSIC IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. You know, say what you want about Nickelback, but at least the damn band is learning from their post-grunge roots and is trying to add more glorious silly fun to their act (it's what made 'This Afternoon', a late single of their Dark Horse album, halfway listenable). They aren't really succeeding, but at least they're trying.

So now we come to Rock of Ages, the movie, a film set in 1987, the peak of hair metal. The storyline is cliched to the point of ridiculousness - young people trying and failing to make it big in the metal scene - and about the time when everybody begins tuning out or groaning with exasperation, Alec Baldwin (playing Dennis Dupri, the hard-edged bar owner) turns up and ruthlessly lampshades the entire damned movie. At this point, Rock of Ages is sending you a message - even though the movie will continue to take itself seriously, you certainly shouldn't be. 

So, much to the lack of surprise for everyone who's seen the musical or is familiar with hair metal, Rock of Ages is silly, ridiculous, and gloriously idiotic. It's easily one of the stupidest movies I've seen in a long time, and with the exception of the upcoming Expendables 2, it'll probably be the stupidest movie I'll see all year. But somehow, in between facepalming at some of the more ridiculous bits and groaning at some of the particularly bad 80s humour, I was still having a ton of fun. How the flying fuck did that happen?

Well, I'll say this, it certainly had nothing to do with the two leads. Male Lead and Female Lead (neither of them had personality so I'm not going to go on IMDB and dig up names) have an earnest honesty that you need to play this sort of role, but neither of them really had the necessary hair metal vibe to truly make their performances memorable. Hell, I think could rock harder than the male lead, to the point where there was a certain scene late in the movie involving another genre of a music that I genuinely felt the male lead fit in better with. There's a serious lack of raw edge in their voices, which I feel didn't help the atmosphere (and while we're briefly on the topic of the atmosphere, while the director does go full throttle with costuming and set design to recreate the 80s feel, certain missing details, like a lack of cigarettes and cocaine, really irked me).

Fortunately (with the exception of a dramatically over-acting Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays the Tipper Gore role of the movie with alarming awfulness), the supporting cast is a lot better. Alec Baldwin is enjoying himself as the bar owner, and Russell Brand is having a ton of fun as his wise-ass sidekick, and their double act leads to one of the best laughs of the movie (which I definitely won't spoil). Even Paul Giamatti is having fun in a gloriously slimy role he could play in his sleep, and Mary J. Blige does a halfway decent job as a strip club matron.

But the real star in this movie is Tom Cruise, who plays the rock star Stacee Jaxx - and I'm just going to say this, but this might be one of the best roles Cruise has played in years. I don't exactly know how to describe his acting method, but picture Axl Rose crossed with Nicolas Cage profoundly drunk on Johnny Walker Blue - seriously, some of the stuff involving his character in the film has to be seen to be believed. The interesting thing here is noting that while Alec Baldwin's more grounded character seems to be at least partially in on the joke, Tom Cruise plays everything incredibly straight. It's a weird turn for the movie, but it adds surprising gravitas to some moments that could have been unbelievably ridiculous. 

But here's the big problem with his character, and one of the shots to the kneecap that really hurts this movie, even if you are trying to embrace the epic silliness: Tom Cruise really, really can't sing. He has a few musical numbers, and while I can respect the man for acting his ass off, he does not have a singing voice, and boy does it show. It only adds to a big problem with this movie, in that none of the cast (with the possible acception of Mary J. Blige) can remotely hope to match their 80s predecessors. Tom Cruise is no Jon Bon Jovi or Axl Rose, and Male Lead is no Dee Snider or Steve Perry. I hate to say it, but if there's anything that reveals just how silly everything is and shatters any illusions, it's this. 

If I have any big criticisms of the movie, my biggest would be the deviations from the musical. Rock of Ages the musical did actually get surprisingly dark at points, and while the new subplot involving Jaxx was well-executed and I approve the removal of the obnoxious stereotypes, I wish the harder political edge had been kept in this story, and that they'd gone wholesale with the sleaziness of the setting. Now would have likely forced an R-rating - a death sentence to any musical on screen - but considering this is a musical about the sleaziness, most debauched period of rock music, you'd think they'd have gone to Smokin' Aces extremes on the drugs and sex. As it is, like every Adam Shankman production, it feels a bit too clean cut, lacking the drive to really push boundaries forward. As it is, it feels a bit safe, and that's disappointing. And yeah, there were a few musical numbers I wish they'd kept, but odds are I'll see them in a later cut of the movie, which leads to my next problem, in that this movie was seriously chopped down. There's no 'Cum On Feel The Noize' until the credits, there's no 'High Enough' or 'Final Countdown' or 'The Search Is Over', the mashup of 'Heaven' and 'More Than Words' is lacking the epic Mr. Big third part 'To Be With You', and bafflingly, there's no 'Sherrie', the obvious Steve Perry musical number for serenading main Female Lead who is named Sherrie!

But you know what? Even despite all of that mess, even despite all of the bad singing and bland lead performances and Catherine Zeta-Jones' horrible over-acting... yeah, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. To me, this movie reached 'So Bad It's Good' by the third musical number, and by then I was fully revelling the silliness, fully aware that someone somewhere behind this movie was in on the same joke. And there were even a few moments with Cruise or with Brand and Baldwin that I'd consider borderline amazing, worth everything to see. And despite the rather lackluster cinematography, the set designs and costumes are fantastic, and while the instrumentation is a bit too slick at points, most of the time it was as epic as it should have been. And there are points where if you're in the right mindset, this movie will suck you in and you'll revel in the epic glorious excess of it all.

So can I recommend this movie? To be fair, it's a hard movie to recommend, because hard core hair metal fans who take that genre seriously will find the music subpar, and most of them won't be able to laugh at themselves. And if you're not a fan of hair metal, you're never going to be able to embrace the epic ridiculousness of the movie (although, like all Nic Cage vehicles, I'm going to toss out a recommendation for Tom Cruise's actng performance alone, because it's something insane that you'll never see again). If anything, this movie works if you're willing to laugh at the silliness of some of your own tastes, and then enjoy them anyways regardless. To quote Community, it's a movie for people who 'like liking things', if that makes any sense.

So here is my advice: if you fit that mindset, or think you do, go see Rock of Ages, or wait for DVD if you're looking for a longer, uncut, probably better film. If you don't, go through your music collection and find that one album you haven't listened to in a while because you found 'better music' that wasn't as silly or stupid or ridiculous. Maybe it's hair metal, maybe it's country, maybe it's bubblegum pop, maybe it's folk rock, maybe it's symphonic metal, maybe it's a musical. Hell, maybe it's that old copy of Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf.

Put the album on and listen to it, and try to put aside your assumptions about how corny/silly it is. Most people won't be able to do this, won't be able to become 'part of the joke'.

But if you can, you might just find something special. 

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