Jim Reviews Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages

I was born in 1975 which means that I was born into a musical world at a crossroads. We were still in the midst of classic rock, but the influences of glam, punk, metal, and even rap were starting to be felt closer and closer to the mainstream. It was truly an amazing time. You had bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream along side Iron Maiden, Judas Priest while The Ramones and The Sex Pistols were taking things in a totally new direction, and New York was producing acts like The Sugar Hill Gang, and Grand Master Flash.

In short, it was an amazing time to grow up and gave me some pretty solid foundations for what I consider good music.

One of the biggest things I look for is a singer with a distinct sound and style. I have never gone for the polished, sterile voice. My favorite musicians are people like Tom Waits, and Nick Cave, and bands like The Pogues, Flogging Molly, or for rap... I really only go as deep as Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys.

What do all of these have in common? Each one has a vocalist with a very unique tone. This is what I hate about shows like "Glee," and "American Idol." Yes, they give us technical singer that can sing really well, what they don't give us is... well, any grit. It's all very homogenized, very white bread, very boring music. And sadly, that is becoming the norm today.

So, "Rock of Ages," really got my attention. A rock musical set in the days of my musical awakening (I was 12 at the time the movie was set, around the time I bought my first album... Def Leppard's "Pyromania") that featured a bunch of kick ass songs from that period. How could I not be at least interested?

Thing is... I forgot something I call my "Across the Universe" rule.

For those who have not listened to my show long enough to know what I'm talking about I will explain. The "Across the Universe Rule" is as follows...

Movie musicals are awful, and are made more so by the inclusion of pre-existing songs, and made unbearable by the presence of hippies.

Thankfully, "Rock of Ages" is completely free of hippies. So, it has that going for it.

The problem I have with movie musicals is that musicals are all about the spectacle. There is nothing like being in the theatre as these massive, choreographed numbers unfold live in front of you. The energy is amazing and the performances come so fully to life that it's impossible not to be sucked in.

Then you make a movie and the spontaneous energy that fuels those numbers is gone. There is no live audience fueling the performers, so you get technically proficient and utterly flat performances. It's not the same.

Add pre-existing songs and that is compounded. Instead of songs that fit the story you have stories that fit the songs. You find yourself predicting what song is coming next, and wondering how it's going to come off as part of this story.

"Rock of Ages" was nothing but songs that I know, and know well. They are the songs that I grew up loving. So... what's the problem. Well, there is a world of difference between a good signer and a good ROCK singer.

A good singer, in particular a good musical theatre singer, needs to have a good voice. They need to have clear diction and amazing pitch. They have to be able to clearly vocalize in a way that conveys story as well as emotion.

A good rock singer has to rock. That's it. A good voice is required, but so is presence, personality, and a completely unique style.

Sadly, this movie was populated by good musical theatre singers... and Tom Cruise.

The story is thin and predictable, which in a theatre production is allowable because people are going for the spectacle of the show and the energy of the performers. So much of that is lost here that all you have left is the songs. And as the vocalists are very polished (for the most part) you don't really get that.

So, what did I think about the film itself. Well, it had some good and some bad. Let me walk you through it.

The music- Good, but not what I wanted. These are not rock songs. Well, they are, but not the way they are presented here. Here there is impeccable pitch and pronunciation. It's so clear that I understood lyrics that I have never been able to decipher before. That's because they have a function beyond emotion.

There was a point where they actually played the original master version of "Talk Dirty to Me," by Poison and I found Brett Michaels's vocals to be so refreshing. There was that charisma and style that made the metal bands from back then so amazing. They showed it, then took it away. This upset me.

Also, a lot of it felt a bit forced for my tastes. When you have someone actually say, "We built this city on rock and roll," before the cast breaks out in "We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)," just feels corny.

I realize that this is a taste thing, and there are some people who really dig this sort of thing, just know that if you aren't one of those people... it will be a bit of a letdown.

The performances- By and large these were good. I did have problems with the leads. Neither one of them is a rock singer. Yes, they both sing well, but there is nothing rock about what they do, not in the slightest. The vocals are good, but dull. Julianne Hough,the female lead (who plays a character named "Sherrie," in a rock musical that features Journey, but not "Oh, Sherrie," nothing makes sense to me anymore), has a pretty voice, but "Harden my Heart," and "Shadows of the Night," aren't meant to sound pretty, they are meant to sound raw and powerful. They didn't. Diego Boneta, the male lead, just felt out of place.

The rest of the cast was good. Baldwin was outstanding as the burned out old rocker who just will not give up on rock. I kept waiting for him to talk about his days as a roadie, which is good here. That's exactly what it needs to be. Paul Giamatti was dead on as the scumbag manager.

Russell Brand is a tough one for me. I'm of two minds on Mr. Brand. Sometimes I want to cave his head in with a rock, but other times I find him to be pretty funny and charming. I wish I could settle on one, good or bad. This would make my life much easier.

The Baldwin and Brand characters were interesting, but they didn't play on screen as well as I would be they would on stage.

There are three performances that absolutely steal the show, and they are...

Malin Åkerman as Rolling Stone writer Constance Sack

Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx

A baboon (sorry, I forgot his Christian name) as Hey Man.

The Cruise scenes are great, and his scenes with Akerman are the best in the film.

Cruise is unreal. He embodies everything amazing about the decadent singers of the 80's. He is an absolute caricature and you can tell he loved every minute of this part. I didn't know what to think of him in this part, but he really went above and beyond any expectations I could have had.

The baboon killed it. This might be the best primate performance I've ever seen.

The rest is pretty much what you've heard. It's very cheesy and cliché ridden. The plot exists as a way to put a bunch of songs that you already knew were awesome in a less awesome format. I just don't get the point. Why go see a thin story with music you can hear in a much better format elsewhere? Yeah, Cruise and the Baboon were great, but is that enough?

I have a feeling that on stage, with the heightened energy and the audience reaction and the absolute precision that a lot of this needs, this is probably an amazing show. But, like most movie musicals, everything that made it special has been removed and toned down to make it just another so so piece of entertainment.


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