Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough prepares for her next scene in the Broadway version of “There’s Something About Mary.”

(2012) Musical (New Line) Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige, Will Forte, T.J. Miller, Kevin Nash, Jeff Chase, Celina Beach, Dan Finnerty, Angelo Donato Valderrama. Directed by Adam Shankman

 

Maybe I’m a bit of a music snob – all right, there’s no “maybe” about it – but my idea of fun isn’t watching a cover band butcher the hits of classic rock. However, someone had to convince a Broadway producer and then a Hollywood studio that people would love to see it. Thus began a musical that has been a huge success on the Great White Way but would that success translate to the big screen?

Sherrie Christian (Hough) is a bright-eyed blonde travelling from Tulsa on a bus to make it to the bright lights and big city dreams of L.A. And of course the first thing that happens is she gets her suitcase stolen – the one with all her record albums in it, autographed of course. Sherrie is a rocker chick, a lacquer haired blonde who dreams of Night Ranger, Poison, Whitesnake and Journey. She lives for the hard stuff.

Her mugging is witnessed by Drew Boley (Boneta), a barback with dreams of rock stardom. He is a good-hearted sort and when he hears her story, he arranges with his boss Dennis (Baldwin), owner of the world famous Bourbon Club on the Strip, to give her a job as a cocktail waitress. She comes at a critical juncture for the Bourbon. The club is in financial chaos, owing a sizable tax bill. However, help is on the way – Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), the superstar front man of Arsenal, has brought his band to play their last show ever at the Bourbon before Stacee heads out on his own solo career.

Stacee’s oily manager Paul Gill (Giamatti) tells Stacee that he will be interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter, one Constance Sack (Akerman), one who might have a bit of an agenda and one who isn’t overly awed by Stacee’s sexual attraction. In the meantime, the new mayor (Cranston) and his shrill wife (Jones) who may have a personal vendetta, are taking aim at the Bourbon and are out to shut it down so that the Strip can be cleaned up for rich developers to make a mint on.

Of course things don’t go as planned, everybody kind of goes their separate ways including Sherrie and Drew who have become a couple, but a misunderstanding tears them apart. Of course, this being a musical, we know that a happy ending is in sight and rock and roll will save the day.

I have a thing about Broadway musicals that take pre-written songs and plug them into a cookie cutter plot. Mamma Mia kinda got away with it because it was all the music of a single band and as such meshed together well. Hear, there are a bunch of different acts (with a lot of Poison songs, but also from such bands as the ones previously named as well as Starship, Twisted Sister and Bon Jovi.

The problem is that the songs are played pretty much without any passion. Rock requires it, and this has all the energy and passion of canned elevator music. It’s just loud guitars instead of soft strings. Most of the cast do their own singing and it’s probably better than we have a right to expect. In fact, the acting is pretty solid to but with two notable – and fatal – exceptions.

Hough is best known for her stint on “Dancing With the Stars” and she also has a surprisingly sweet voice (she’s done a country album to this point). However, her acting is not quite up to the same standards. Her Sherrie is kind of annoying, to be honest but at least that’s better than Boneta, veteran of Mexican telenovelas who is simply bland. His character isn’t particularly well-defined to begin with but Boneta adds nothing to him. His voice is pleasant enough but lacks the power to really deliver on his songs.

This is really a mess. It’s not the fault of Cruise who gives a performance that reminds me of his work in Tropical Thunder but without the clever dialogue. The leads are attractive but don’t really deliver any personality, something this project desperately needed. The plot is forgettable and while the songs are good, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes them in the musical numbers from the dancing to the settings. Hough, who is indeed a talented dancer, is even given a turn as an exotic dancer – and yet she almost never dances here. Talk about a wasted opportunity – in fact this whole movie really can be counted as one.

REASONS TO GO: Ummm…you like bar cover bands?

REASONS TO STAY: Some really wooden performances. Uninspiring musical performances. Just a mess in every sense.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of sexual innuendo including some fairly graphic kisses and making out. Lots of drinking – LOTS of it – and some implied drug use. Then there’s the foul language…not a ton but enough to be noticeable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set below the Hollywood sign were actually filmed in Pompano Beach, Florida in a landfill. The real Hollywood sign is fenced out and no public access is permitted.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are unaccountably mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mamma Mia!

’80s ROCK LOVERS: Several stars of rock in the 80s make appearances in the protesters-rockers confrontation near the end of the scene. Among those singing “We Built This City” are Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Debbie Gibson (yes, that one), Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, and Joel Hoekstra of Night Ranger.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: Lola Versus

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The Runaways


The Runaways

Joan Jett loves rock and roll; Cherie Currie loves the lifestyle.

(2010) Musical Biography (Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Danielle Riley Keough, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tatum O’Neal, Stella Maeve, Brett Cullen, Alia Shawkat, Johnny Lewis, Hannah Marks, Jill Andre. Directed by Floria Sigismondi

The world of rock and roll is a harsh one, full of broken promises and shattered dreams. Every so often, a performer or a band will break through and change things; on other occasions, a performer or a band will succumb to the excesses of the industry. Sometimes, a performer or a band will do both.

Joan Jett (Stewart) is a young girl who idolizes Suzi Quatro and Keith Richards. She’s an adept guitarist but nobody will take her seriously and she longs to be in a rock and roll band. She meets Kim Fowley (Shannon), a fixture on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s-era Los Angeles when this all took place. Fowley sees himself as an acute judge of talent and a canny promoter who understands what sells. He longs to be a major player in the music business, something he is not at the time. He likes Jett’s look and her dream of  fronting an all-woman rock band – there were none at the time that had any success, although in pop music the girl groups of the 60s (Martha and the Vandellas and over in Motown the Supremes) had met with success. However, these were women who projected a certain safe and virtuous image. Fowley – and Jett – wanted danger and subversion. Fowley hooked up Jett with Sandy West (Maeve), a drummer. The two began practicing together but the band needed fleshing out.

Cherie Currie (Fanning) is Bowie-obsessed and performs one of his songs dressed just like him at a school talent show, getting booed by her audience and flipping them off in retaliation. Her home life is falling apart at the seams – her dad (Cullen) is an alcoholic, spiraling slowly to an inevitable end and her mom (O’Neal) has fled to Indonesia to escape, leaving her with her twin Marie (Keough) as essentially sole support. Fowley discovers her and brings her to his trashy trailer to perform with the band. At first Cherie is stiff and hesitant but with Fowley pushing her/abusing her into the right attitude, her natural performing talent, sexuality and charisma come to the fore. “It’s not women’s lib,” Fowley crows, “Its women’s libido!” The remaining spots in the band are filled up with guitarist Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Wolf (Shawkat).

The group plays a series of gigs in a series of depressing dives before Fowley gets them signed to a major label. A song, “Cherry Bomb” becomes a minor hit (although it becomes a big one in Japan) and the band begins to headline gigs and support major acts in stadiums. They go to Japan where they are mobbed by rabid fans and all of a sudden this group of young girls – all in their mid-teens at the time – suddenly are cursed with the success of the rock and roll lifestyle; plenty of sex, plenty of drugs, and not so much rock and roll. Eventually, the curse of success will overcome the band, with internal musical differences and Currie’s drug habit proving to be too much for the band to survive.

Director Sigismondi makes her feature debut here after mostly directing music videos, as well as working in fine arts (she’s a talented photographer and sculptor as well) and to her credit she makes the most of a very little. She manages to capture the look and feel of both the L.A. suburbs in the 70s (I should know – that’s where I lived at the time) and the decadent scene on the Sunset Strip.

I’ve been a big fan of Fanning for a long time and she doesn’t disappoint here. She captures the nature of the vulnerable and sometimes lost Currie nicely, showing her as clay to be molded by Fowley and drifting off-course, prey to the temptations of the road. As her family life disintegrates, she becomes more and more lost. The movie to a large extent focuses most on Currie (but to be fair, she did write the biography that the movie is based on) and Fanning handles the load nicely.

Stewart, best known as the angst-ridden Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise is surprisingly rough-edged here, showing the force-of-nature strength of Jett but also her bisexual tendencies. There is a fairly lurid make-out scene between Jett and Currie which comes off as exploitative, but given the nature of the band and the era, kind of makes sense as something like it would appear in a 70s “B” movie, which this closely resembles in tone. Stewart shows more range here than she has previously, forcing me to revise my opinion of her as a somewhat one-note actress. I look forward to seeing more from her along these lines.

Shannon is a terrific actor who has one Oscar nomination to his credit and has the chops to garner more of the same should he get the right roles. This one is not, but he does capture the manic and manipulative nature of Fowley who yearned to be a mover and a shaker, but whose claim to fame would always be this band. He often claimed he assembled the Runaways both conceptually and practically, a claim he has backed off from in recent years. Shannon is riveting in the part, capturing both the yin and the yang of Fowley who could be supportive one moment and abusive the next.

In fact, in many ways this movie sugarcoats the Runaways story, leaving out allegations of sexual and physical abuse around the band. It also leaves out the backstory of the rest of the band (in the case of Ford, at the real Lita’s request) in focusing on the two leads. The filmmakers do a disservice to the band in essentially portraying them as a two-woman creative team (in reality, West and Ford co-wrote most of the songs with Jett and Fowley). While it’s true Jett and Currie were the heart and soul of the band, it would have been nice to include more of the rest of the band’s story in the movie, particularly that of West who passed away from lung cancer just prior to the beginning of filming.

The legacy of the Runaways is undeniable; Joan Jett remains a rock and roll icon, an inspiration to young female rockers everywhere. It’s a bit of a crying shame that they remain largely unknown here and those who do know them mostly know them for “Cherry Bomb,” their signature hit. They were certainly much more than that, and anyone who has seen their Showtime documentary (which includes some incendiary performance footage) will attest to that. The movie picks up part of their essence – enough to make it worth seeing. I just wish we would have gotten a little bit more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic recreation of the time and the scene. Surprisingly gritty performances from Stewart and Fanning. Shannon shows a good deal of charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie leaves out a good deal of information, and fictionalizes or trivializes the group’s achievements.

FAMILY VALUES: There are occasionally graphic depictions of teen sex and drug use, as well as a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackie Fox, the actual bass player for the Runaways, declined to give the producers of the film the rights to her life story so a fictional character was introduced to be the Runaways bassist (and ironically, has no lines in the film); Lita Ford also declined to give her rights to the producers, but did meet with Scout Taylor-Compton prior to filming and declared that even if the film was awful, Taylor-Compton at least did her character justice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Single Man