TALKING MOVIES ‘Rock of Ages’ shows us why rock and roll, with its brooding heroes and dramatic storylines, makes for terrific cinema.
While scientists beaver away at arcane experiments to resolve whether particles can tootle along faster than the speed of light — ergo! time travel — rock and roll music is ahead of the curve. Adam Shankman's “Rock of Ages” was a split-second time jump back to those 1980s-era rock moments; I just sat back and enjoyed watching images being synced to the affectionately-remembered soundtracks that played in my head — Def Leppard, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi, Jefferson Starship.
The fun lay in the music and why not? Good music can set the screen on fire — remember “Purple Rain” by the artist who was formerly a symbol? You remember the film for the music rather than the thespian abilities of those involved, though Prince's extravagant use of eyeliners was pretty haunting too.
As the highest grossing worldwide musical of all time, “Mamma Mia” (2008) rubber-stamped the jukebox musical where stars sang their own, wildly uneven versions of famous cover songs. The memory of musically-challenged Pierce Brosnan in the film, incidentally, still lifts my spirits when my tuneless warbling in the shower is judged to have hit an all-time low.
But while “Rock of Ages” is largely a jukebox rock musical — that even features Foreigner's “Jukebox Hero” — Tom Cruise surprised with his singing abilities. Some trivia: Def Leppard's front man Joe Elliott happened to be on the sets while Cruise was belting out their “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, and gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Cruise's edgy turn as rock star Stacee Jaxx was electric because of the actor's ability to undercut himself — he was simultaneously both a serious actor exploring the weirdness of a dissolute rock star as well as a comedian doing a seriously weird send-up of the same.
Something like the serious-satire combination that still makes Rob Reiner's faux documentary “This is Spinal Tap” (1984) so funny and gripping. The fictional tale works because the joke runs so deep – the onscreen actors are so in touch with the rhythms of the real thing, they coalesce into the very thing they are parodying.
Overall, the documentary approach works well for rock films because it's an organic way of getting in the music. Great rockumentaries include Martin Scorsese's “The Last Waltz” about The Band's final 1976 performance as well as memorable concert films such as “Stop Making Sense”, the Jonathan Demme-David Byrne collaboration.
More on the “fake documentary” route is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous”, where a high school kid gets an unbelievable opportunity to do a story for Rolling Stone, by following a band called Stillwater that comes complete with a self-destructive rock star.
Rock's brooding and badly damaged heroes offer great material for dramatised biographies, despite the ever-lurking danger of too much schmaltz or hagiographic excess. Not so, in director Anton Corbijn's brilliant black-and-white bio-pic of Ian Curtis, frontman and founder of Joy Division, the English rock/post-punk band.
Sam Riley nails the role as the ultra-sensitive Curtis. If the joys of success were waiting round the corner, the divisive tragedies of real life — poverty, epilepsy, too-early fatherhood, infidelity — never let Curtis turn that corner. The troubled musician took his own life at 23.
Oliver Stone's 1991 bio-pic of the seminal 1960s rock group The Doors was not as perceptive — though in fairness, Val Kilmer's performance as a trippy Jim Morrison was pretty powerful. But then again, we've already figured out that when it comes to celluloid rock, it's the soundtrack that headlines the film, complemented by, say, a break-out performance such as Cruise's in “Rock of Ages”.
Or by moodily evocative visuals as in “Velvet Goldmine”, a fictionalised expose of the Glam Rock scene of the 1970s. Rock and roll makes for good cinema because there's great visual potential in the depiction of fame, and the decadence of the rock star lifestyle. There is a reason “sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll” form a clichéd triumvirate.
It's also a cliché screaming out to be satirised, as in “Wayne's World”. Or more gently mocked in Tom Hank's turn as a director in “That Thing You Do!”; a band originally titled the One-ders produces one massive pop-rock hit single but then doesn't know where to go.
“Rock of Ages” is centred on a very specific time, which might limit audiences to those of us who grew up — like John Cusack's character in “High Fidelity” — as part of a generation seeking to create that perfect mixtape.
But apart from nostalgic time travel possibilities, here is the real power of such imperfect films as “Rock of Ages” — they reassure that “Ageing Rocker”, far from being a pejorative, is a badge of honour. If you can relive the spirit of the music, you belong to a very special club that's still rocking.