I don't like musicals. The reason is two-fold. First, people bursting into song destroys storytelling. Nothing muddies and slows down the narrative like ten minutes of warbling, ambiguous lyrics clouding up character motivation so you're not sure what they're feeling, why and about whom. Second, despite being called "musicals" nearly all musicals purvey one type of music. There's no reggae, there's no hard rock, there's no trance, drum 'n' bass, acid jazz, folk or blues; there is only, what I call, Musical Music.
Approximating Musical Music is a bit tricky. Its not quite pop, is not quite classical. What it is is that music you hear piped into shopping malls up and down the country, knock-off versions of popular classics like Robbie Williams back catalogue, re-recorded by some bloke called Ashley and a backing band in a cheap studio somewhere in Essex. Ashley thinks this is his big break so he's giving it both barrels, singing the hell out of Angels and Millennium. But its the overkill that kills it. Musical Music, the likes of Love Never Dies and Defying Gravity, are so overwrought, so packed full of emotion, they end up having the opposite effect, the subtly of emotion strangled by the drive to shatter those big, high notes. And all this backed by a band down in the orchestra pit made up of boring uncles in cardigans tinkling keyboards and playing drumkits with brushes. Maybe they called them "musicals" in an ironic sense.
Unfortunately for me, my other half loves them. I've been dragged to everything from Phantom to Les Mis, and while I fully appreciate the stage craft and the often amazing vocal performances, I'm usually unmoved. So it was with trepidation that I went to the latest musical of the moment Rock of Ages. Packed full of hair-rock classics from the 80s, I was praying that old faves like Wanted Dead Or Alive weren't about to be trashed.
And for once the musical delivered the goods. Rather than a stuffy ten-piece below the stage, the house band were quite literally that, a sweaty bunch of rockers permanently positioned on stage. And they could play a bit to, a whole lot in fact. Chords were powerful, solos extravagant. What also helped was the profanity laced humour, present throughout. The cast were in on the jokes and often broke the "fourth wall" to wink at the audience and chuckle along. They even got the setting right, the sleaze and smut of late eighties LA Sunset Strip was perfectly invoked, even amongst the grandeur of the Shaftesbury Theatre; the place was littered with ladies thongs hanging all over the walls and ceiling. It was the best night out I'd had in ages.
Like all popular musicals of late Rock of Ages has now been promoted to the big screen, but alas the magic hasn't followed. As with the awful film adaptation of that other popular music / tongue in cheek humour stage show Mamma Mia, alot has been lost in translation. To start with Adam Shankman's movie has lost the essential sleaze. The whole film has that shiny wholesome High School Musical / Glee veneer, which is about a million miles away from the old haunts of Motley Crue and Guns 'n' Roses. Most of the swearing has gone to, as has the thrill of seeing voluptuous ladies dancing in lingerie; in the Shaftesbury Theatre it made perfect sense, a spot on reimagening of sitting in a Sunset Strip strip joint with silk covered crotches thrusting just a few rows away. On the big screen its more like a cutprice Aguilera video.
The sweaty rock band has gone to, along with the obvious enjoyment of hearing and seeing cheesy rock classics played live. In its place is the shopping mall rendition of Rock of Age's soundtrack, soul-less renditions of Any Way You Want It and Hit Me With Your Best Shot that only serve to highlight the fun of the originals. The story was always thin but that could be forgiven on stage, that musical conceit of "its more about the performances than the story" accepted when you plonk down in the stalls. But stretched out to an overlong cinematic running time of two hours plus, the anaemic story crumbles to dust.
Its not all bad news. Tom Cruise plays wonderfully against type as sleazeball singer Stacee Jaxx and even shows off his own impressive set of pipes. On top of that Cruise somehow manages to inject a boat load of pathos into Jaxx despite the ridiculousness of the character, so much so you leave wanting to find out alot more about the man. Elsewhere some old eighties faces like Debbie Gibson and Sebastian Bach pop up, and there is an obvious sense of silliness running through the whole film that's hard not to resist. But as with most on-screen musical graduates, the fun is much better suited to traditional theatres and the stage. Musicals are about the experience, movies are about story-telling.