If you were to take a gander at the shows now playing at London’s West End and compare them to those from ten years ago, you’d notice one striking development: the rise of the jukebox musical. Whereas the theatre-going public used to eagerly wait for the next Andrew Lloyd Webber production, there’s now a staggering number of shows ‘inspired by the hits of’ ABBA, Queen, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Frankie Valli, Green Day – the list literally goes on. On screen, the trend continues: the successes of Moulin Rouge, Mamma Mia and Glee have now inevitably resulted in Rock of Ages.
Set in West Hollywood 1987, this star-studded production is set around the fictional Bourbon Club where we meet Sherrie and Drew (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta), aspiring young rock singers who tend bar while they wait for their big break. Running the club are Alec Baldwin’s rock and roll burnout and his right-hand man Russell Brand (whose accent suggests that he hails from some seriously fruity part of the midlands). Featuring the songs of Bon Jovi, Poison, Foreigner and big bands, Rock of Ages is less a celebration of Rock than it is of 80s Pop. This means that pretty much every track will sound familiar to even the least rock-savvy viewers, giving everybody in the audience regular moments when they think Hey! It’s that song!
The moment you meet the main couple, there’s no question as to what direction the story is heading: boy meets girl, boy gets success, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. It’s a story that has been told so many times but for some reason, it really didn’t bother us. From the very first scene where we’re treated to one of the movie’s many mash up numbers, it becomes quickly apparent that the plot is largely there to function as lubricant, guiding the story from song to song. After all: there are twenty songs in a film 120 minutes long. That’s an average of one musical number EVERY SIX MINUTES! The dialogue, while unmemorable, is deployed almost exclusively as a way to segue between songs and justify the lyrics within the context of the story. There are a few good gags peppered along the way, but the writers/editors have had the good sense to get out of the way of the music.
And the music is good. Everybody in the cast seems very comfortable with the songs, including Tom Cruise who plays legendary rocker Stacee Jaxx in way that suggests an Axl Rose/Keith Richards hybrid. Brand and Baldwin are given relatively little to do but their scenes together are a lot of fun. Diego Boneta could be the film’s major revelation, playing the young lead. Looking like a beefy version of Bret from Flight of the Conchords, he’s charismatic and reasonably funny when the script calls for it.
One of the big weaknesses (and there are a few) of Rock of Ages is also tied into its biggest strength. While they’ve assembled a killer collection of hit songs, a lot of them are very similar: they start off a bit quiet before they crescendo into a rousing power anthem. As a result, the already flimsy second act feels a little shapeless.
It would be tough recommending this film as a piece of narrative cinema, but I don’t think it aspires to that standard at all. Like Mamma Mia and The Rocky Horror Picture Show before it, Rock of Ages wants to be that movie you see with your friends while you munch on a big bucket of popcorn. It’s a light and enjoyably musical that will most likely have you singing its songs on the car trip home.