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Let’s Rush To Judgment!: ‘Rock Of Ages’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 16, 2011

Way back in 2008, I reviewed the off-Broadway production of Rock of Ages. I still have the e-mail I sent my editor, where I asked to cover the show because I was “morbidly fascinated” to see what would happen when ’80s hair metal songs got shoved into a silly story about two kids falling in love on the Sunset Strip. I was prepared for bad, but expecting terrible.

I was not prepared to become a fan. But as it happens, Rock of Ages, which eventually transferred to Broadway, is kind of brilliant. It’s both a self-parody and a sincere love story, reveling in the excesses of the 80s while understanding that sometimes, the only way to express your feelings is by screaming high notes over a wicked guitar riff. The show laughs at itself, but it doesn’t think it’s too good for its own material, and that makes it easy to adore.

Thus, I’ve been excited about the Rock of Ages movie from the moment it was announced: First of all, it’s directed by Adam Shankman, who has helmed and/or choreographed dozens of cheeky-yet-sincere musical numbers. Second, it stars people like Alec Baldwin (as the owner of a seedy nightclub), Catherine Zeta-Jones (as a metal-phobic mayor’s wife), and Mary J. Blige (as a stripper/madam.) These people are not afraid of the campy heights this material demands, as evidenced by the title of Blige’s last album: My Life 2: The Journey Continues (Part I).

And then there’s the Tom Cruise factor: He’s been cast as Stacee Jaxx, a Bret Michaels-esque rock singer who sleazes around like nobody’s business. The part recalls both the wolfish Frank T.J. Mackey from Magnolia and the vile Les Grossman from Tropic Thunder, which means Cruise can probably play it with the right amount of dirty charm. But even so, Cruise’s image has been suffering for years. That real-world drama could either enhance our perception of a character like Stacee Jaxx or completely derail it.

It seems like the trailer, which just arrived this week, understands all of this. It launches not with ’80s songs or close-ups of the central lovebirds, but with Alec Baldwin cracking about how his club will soon be awash in vomit. That’s exactly the tone that needs to be set, and those jokes are followed by shots of some awesomely horrible wigs. Baldwin looks like the drunkest roadie at a CCR concert. Julianne Hough, who plays the ingenue, has bangs so feathered she could migrate south. And Mary J.’s enormous curls are reaching right on up to heaven. Then we see a musical number that pits Catherine Zeta-Jones (belting Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”) against a group of toughs singing Starship’s “We Built This City.” The bad kids! Singing Starship! This movie and I understand each other.

Once again, there’s the Tom Cruise factor: As though predicting our national uncertainty about the actor, the trailer spends a lot of time discussing Stacee Jaxx without actually showing him. And when we finally do get a clear shot, he doesn’t speak a word. By keeping Cruise’s performance a touch mysterious, the clip invites us to come on in and see for ourselves if the freak show has rolled into town.

I have been fully seduced by this carnival barking. I am dying to know how Cruise pans out. I’m dying to see if the film keeps the stage musical’s surprise twist for Baldwin’s character. I am double-dog dying to see if Pat Benatar’s music made it into the final cut. Don’t be surprised if I start camping out for tickets next week. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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