Julianne Hough’s character Sherrie in “Rock of Ages” arrives onto the scene in a floral-enhanced dress, with an obscenely cumbersome suitcase in hand while a skinny punk jerk is rattled between policemen and hookers. Skipping alongside ‘80s choppers and liquor ads, Sherrie sings “Just Like Paradize” as her nose points at a rack of girlie mags and cigarettes next to the Roxy. At the edge of her jaunt is one of the film’s fictional focal points, the Bourbon Room, sullied and dank like used chewing gum on the sidewalk. It’s like the opening of “Rock of Ages” is a whiskey-drunk “Wizard of Oz,” with the Sunset Strip as the Yellow Brick Road and the munchkins starring as gum-chewing, crimp-haired, Poison-baiting Lollipop Guild.
Judging from the promos that have arrived from director Adam Shankman
’s new creation, there’s going to be a lot of jokes about hair, just as there were in his other film “Hairspray.” But the rebuilt Strip – carved out of a low-rent neighborhood in Miami – boasts some darkness and details: understated, celebrated, a stark contrast to Hough’s bright chirp.
“This whole movie is like meta-paced. Like if you blow on any of the sets they’ll fall down,” said Shankman during a film shoot last year. He’s bringing the jukebox musical to life with what he said is the same budget but half the time as “Hairspray.”
So the set may not be sturdy, but the cash reserves were seemingly saved for casting. Along with Hough, the all-star lineup includes Tom Cruise
, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Mary J. Blige, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bryan Cranston. But the real spotlights are on the songs, with roses and thorns from the ‘80s from artists like Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi and, of course, Journey.
“I was singing ‘Don't Stop Believin’’ before ‘Glee,’ and there was someone before me too. These songs are timeless,” said Diego Boneta
, who plays the romantic orbit around Hough’s Sherrie as would-be-rock-star Drew. “If it wasn't Glee, it would've been someone else.”
It’s Cruise who takes the last lead as Stacee Jaxx, an early-30-something rocker who tries splitting from his longtime band. It’s the 49-year-old “Mission Impossible” action star’s first musical film.
“We put him with Axl Rose's singing guy because I needed the songs to be really rock, I needed the voices to be rock ‘n’ roll, not Broadway,” Shankman recalls about the early “Rock of Ages” rehearsals. “And the guy got him to sing way the f*ck up, and it would have thick, amazing sound to it. Apparently, Tom has in his family, has, like, some opera singers. And so he's genetically predisposed to be able to sing.”
Dancing, at times, was a different matter, particularly since Cruise’s craft needs a little more... motivation.
“You have to be careful what you say, because he listens so much. He really takes what you say and then starts to pull it apart… You don't improv [dance] movement with him,” Shankman said, discussing working with choreographer Mia Michaels
(“So You Think You Can Dance
”). “There's nothing he does in the movie that wasn't choreographed to the knuckle. He wants to why you're doing, like, a hip roll or something like that. I don't want to f*cking have to tell you why you're doing a hip roll, because there's a piece of music that does it. Tom wants to know why.
“There's nothing bad about that, it's just very challenging to us to have to explain things that are just organic.”
Another challenge to the “Rock of Ages” shoot was the combination of sex and rock ‘n’ roll: not that it’s not a natural, erm, coming-together, but it’s a PG-13 flick. “Sex and humor are the two big choreographic sort of points in this,” Shankman says.
That means Malin Akerman singing the tune of “I Want to Know What Love Is” as she pulls apart the laces to Stacee’s pants with her teeth. It’s world-class pole dancing champions accompanying essentially the rock version of “Be Our Guest.” Drew’s dreams are altered into a New Kids on the Block-style boy band while there’s a gay love story between Baldwin and Brand’s characters. Zeta-Jones’ Patricia Whitmore is essentially the First Lady of Los Angeles circa 1987 (not exactly what audiences grew to love from her role in “Chicago”).
“You have incredibly famous people doing incredibly weird sh*t. And it's all through my filter. And they've all given over to me, and I feel very grateful that they have, because I feel incredibly lucky,” Shankman continues. “I was so stunned when I went to see the [original] play, that the house was full of straight guys rocking out, freaking out and loving a musical. I was like, if I can make a musical for straight guys… are you f*cking kidding me? Then I’d be a rock star.”