Dirty and just a bit stupid

Small-town girl Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) and wannabe Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) make sparks. Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) brings the star power in leather pants.

THERE’s something in the Rock of Ages premise that makes me recall an interview I did years ago with Bryan Adams. ”I’m just a dirty white boy,” he told me. ”I just wanna rock, you know?” Of course, the Groover from Vancouver was about as dirty as a Colgate smile; he was even drinking plain warm water because tea was too polluting. But that didn’t matter. Like so many of us, Adams had bought the idea of rock as rebellion so completely and sincerely that, in his head, he was Johnny B. Goode.

Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical for dirty white boys. Journey and Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and Poison, Whitesnake and Twisted Sister: it’s the stadium rock of the Reagan era, strung together with a standard boy-meets-girl storyline and set in an agreeably grungy music venue on the Sunset Strip. In the original stage version, the club was threatened by evil property developers. In the new film, directed by Adam Shankman – who also directed the remake of Hairspray – it is the killjoy mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his Christian fundamentalist wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who want to close them down. Either way, it’s a cue for a mash-up of We Built This City and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now: go, dirty white boys, go!

Film producer Matt Weaver had the idea for Rock of Ages in a Los Angeles bar in 2005. ”The genesis of it was I wanted to develop a musical that guys would go to,” Weaver says. ”I’d never done theatre before, but it completely changed my life. I’m like the Forrest Gump of theatre.” So he hired a scriptwriter (Chris D’Arienzo) and managed to persuade enough bands to sell rights to their songs.

Quite a few – including Motley Crue, the Gunners and Def Leppard – refused. They probably thought they were about to become the butt of a Spinal Tap-style send-up. Weaver, meanwhile, insisted he was simply celebrating the era musical taste forgot. ”We are putting it on a pedestal. In our heart and soul, we believe these songs were as good as any Broadway song out there.”

By the time the film was announced, however, Rock of Ages had become a massive hit off-Broadway – earning five Tony nominations – and was heading for London (the Australian production played for seven months at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre last year). Def Leppard were among the naysayers who opted back in, despite the fact the film actually steps up the satire with casting.

Alec Baldwin dons a shaggy wig to become club owner Dennis Dupree; Tom Cruise, meanwhile, is the rock god Stacee Jaxx.

Last week, Shankman told a junket for the film that this worked because Cruise ”brings all the star power that comes along with being Tom Cruise, so audiences immediately accept that larger-than-life character”. But really, the opposite is true: it works because he is prepared to exploit his established persona, so notably devoid of irony or self-doubt, for comic effect. Seeing the star of the Mission: Impossible franchise prance about in leather pants belting out Pour Some Sugar on Me is inherently funny.

Of course, a lot of the appeal of this music is its familiarity. People who would not have been seen dead tapping a toe to Harden My Heart 25 years ago smile now as they hear those power chords. When the show opened in London, Weaver offered to refund the ticket of anyone who didn’t enjoy it. It was a bit of showman’s bravado, but he was right to think there was something in it that was nigh on irresistible.

As D’Arienzo told one interviewer: ”It’s a celebration of what Lester Bangs, the great rock writer, called the stupidity of rock. Really great rock bands embrace stupidity in a glorious, fun way.”

Rock of Ages is now screening.

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