Guitar Hero and Glee have a lot to answer for, but perhaps we can start the inquiry with their bastard child – namely, the Rock Of Ages soundtrack.
Whether simulating a rock star with a plastic instrument in the comfort of your loungeroom, or selling a message that ‘anyone can be a pop singer’ – from the wheelchair-bound geek to the clean-cut preppy - both forms of entertainment are essentially about mimicry. Like them, this soundtrack of the movie adaptation of the 80s MTV Generation musical is too.
The effect however, isn’t as heroic or cheesily rewarding when the people performing the same glorified karaoke are some of Hollywood’s biggest and richest stars.
Enter Tom Cruise…. Sorry, “Stacee Jaxxx”… singing Guns N Roses gold standard, “Paradise City”, the track that opens the compilation is pretty much a microcosm for the whole shameless experiment.
Yes, it’s liable to bring about the right nostalgic feelings for LA in its sleazy, glam heyday, but it’s also just as likely to make you want to wretch if you think any deeper about the money-spinning exercise that’s lying beneath the slick surface.
That’s not to say Cruise makes for a bad Axl Rose, it’s actually a pretty good approximation. In fact, the entire production – from its Marshall stack guitars and arena rock drums, to the dainty piano flourishes and weepy strings – is top-notch. Cover versions buffed with a slick gloss that instantly shows up their problem, they lack grit, soul and more importantly – passion.
Cruise, along with a cast of young twenty-somethings (Diego Boneta who?) are merely playing pretend. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who’s about as rock n’ roll as her husband’s grizzled hairline (re: not very). Likewise Mary J. Blige, caterwauling up a storm on “Harden My Heart” or Paul Giamatti bungling through a few lines of Whitesnake; while no amount of irony can excuse Russell Brand from schlepping his way through REO Speedwagon and Poison – he really should know better.
Which brings us to another problem, are you able to distract yourself enough to fully immerse yourself into yet another version of “Don’t Stop Believin’” just for the added benefit of a greasy, long-haired Alec Baldwin? (‘cause you know, he’s funny and stuff)
The best moment comes when “We Built This City/We’re Not Gonna Take It” boils down the best bits of Starship and Twisted Sister – the choruses – and blends them together into a hybrid medley that’s unashamedly musical theatre and yet diverges from its source material.
Ultimately Rock of Ages never rises above what it set out to be, a series of facsimiles – not necessarily hollow ones – but versions that never should, or will, replace the legacy of the originals they’re based on.
So who then, is this album really for?
For the curious it might be worth a spin or two for a chuckle and to see that it’s not as ear-bleedingly bad as you might think. Then there’s the fact that surely the original rockers are getting a share of the royalties. Which actually might not be such a bad thing. If Rock of Ages ends up being the first taste for newcomers to a deeper introduction to musical history – then maybe that’s a good thing.
Rock of Ages doesn’t pretend to ignore its Broadway heritage but instead panders to the stage musical crowd. The very same fans who appreciate the spectacle of Glee, Idol, The Voice et al. and can still stomach the kitsch.
It isn’t for the rock fans who so obviously inspired it, unless it’s for the fact they might get a kick out of seeing their generation’s radio soundtrack being introduced to a younger and newer audience; even if it’s in a hand-me-down, Chinese whisper.
But really, why settle for Tom Cruise reworking every stripper’s song of choice, Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On me”, when you can go straight to the 1987 bubblegum metal original?
Say what you will about the poodle-haired creators, the Top 40 radio fodder of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Foreigner, but at least their leathery, haggard frames were filled big dreams, as much as obscene amounts of alcohol, drugs and ego.
There’s a bizarre heroism in a Tommy Lee or Axl Rose living their rock lifestyle as much as singing and playing about it, but their glory days are long behind them, which creates a safe enough distance for a photoshopped Gen Y to toy with it. It’s not trying to be an authentic recreation, but merely a fun new dress-up box to play razzle dazzle with.
A masquerade that sees reason enough for a sprat like Julianne Hough to doll up and pretend to be a rock tart. Never mind the fact she was born in ’88, meaning the glory days she’s emulating were all said and done before she’d entered primary school.
Rock of Ages is just another in a trend, from Chicago, Mamma Mia and Hairspray before it and no doubt any number of big-budget rehash musicals coming down the pipeline to follow it, but Rock of Ages does nothing new. It’s not a full-blooded tribute to a bygone era, it’s merchandise – recycling the familiar for the benefit of someone’s bank account.
We might get star X or starlette Y singing about how they ‘love rock n’ roll’ and to ‘put another dime in the jukebox baby’, but it’s hard to ignore the bitter irony. If you really love rock n roll, don’t put dimes into this particularly slick, meaningless jukebox.
Go buy a hair metal compilation- you’ll have just as much fun and embarrassment.
- Al Newstead
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