OK. It's not exactly a great film in the sense that it shall be included in the annals of cinema classic.
But it was fun. That is as important as being great. The fact that I was stomping my feet, doubling up with laughter and (most especially) singing along meant that I had a damn good time. Well, isn't that why I stepped out of the sanctuary of my abode and traveled to a movie house?
If I wanted to exercise emotional masochism, I could have just turned on my television set and caught a telenovela. The self-flagellation may not come from the convolution of plot and the endless sufferings of protagonists but simply because of an unforgivably illogical, trite and wasted script being shoved down my throat --- or the very simple case of exceptionally bad acting deified as classic soap performances.
If I wanted mental masturbation, I could have also stayed home and read Marcel Proust ... or even tried to break down the dependent and independent clauses in Virginia Woolf's novels.
But I wanted a good time so I watched Rock of Ages and a good time I had for my two hundred pesos.
And at the end of the screening, as I tried to figure out the significance of that experience, I came to the following conclusions:
(1) Nothing can bring back the sense of fun of the music of the 70's and 80's.
There is indeed something distinct, unique and very affecting about the music of the decades when I spent most of my weekend nights clubbing. I guess that is why I have such a particular affection for those songs. Music is the purest of the arts, so it is said. The way songs trigger memories --- tangible and sentient memories --- is unbelievable.
Play me Dennis Lambert's Of All the Things and I can see, feel, taste and smell those days in college, giving me goosebumps and leaving me teary-eyed at the sheer memories of emotions invested, lost and never to be regained.
So hearing songs from the 80s in a jukebox musical also elicits a certain join that goes beyond watching the movie.
I am not an Abba fan but when Meryl Streep started singing the first lines of Winner Takes It All, there was this straight-cut jab right on my solar plexus. I had the same moments watching Rock of Ages even if I was not particularly enamored by the leading lady (who reminded me of a promo girl in The Price is Right --- original edition) or the leading man (who really looks like one of the animated characters in the Facebook application of The Hunger Games).
Popular music captures the moment of its conception, publication and distribution.
That is re-listening to songs of the 80s brings back that whole Zeitgeist. And, oh, the whole scenario takes place in the year 1987 ... which reminds me that ...
(2) The look of the 1980's was not exactly the most glorious period of the history of fashion.
The setting of Rock of Ages was a year after the world famous People Power in the Daang Matuwid Republic.
That was the age of Kirei, padded shoulders, tsunami hairstyles, Penthouse Live!, the most glorious moments of Original Pilipino Music --- when, in one swoop you can rattle off names like Joey Albert, Ric Segreto, Jam Morales, Pat Castillo, Dulce, the Apo Hiking Society, Rey Valera, Sharon Cuneta, Martin Nievera, Pops Fernandez, Gary Valenciano, Kuh Ledesma ... and the list goes (as the song goes) on and on and on.
That was also the age of Rene Requiestas and Pido Dida. And if only for that, I rest my case.
1987 was the year that Kristine Bernadette Cojuangco Aquino started to make her presence felt. Yes, Ms. Aquino has been around for ... oh, my God, twenty-five years! She has been inside your television set and on the big screen ... for a quarter of the century! And that says more than your traditional share of a mouthful about what we have become.
A look back at the 80's is more than just those awful padded shoulders on women's clothes ... or how the male of the species actually believed that sporting mullets looked good on them (think of the original Billy Ray Cyrus singing Achy Breaky Heart or the way Ricky Martin and Robbie Rosa actually primped themselves up when they were still part of the Menudo ... and you sill completely understand where I am coming from). It was all about the sense and sensibility of the time ... which still had innocence and now has become absolutely laughable.
(3) What made ROCK OF AGES really fun was that it lent itself to the screen inasmuch as the came from the stage.
I have yet to see the local production of the musical --- but then very few stage materials --- even of this genre --- truly translate well onscreen.
For instance, even if this is considered a musical of a minor key (I mean, this is not exactly a Sondheim or even a Webber-Rice piece de resistance, right?), bringing the sense of fun of Rock of Ages onstage to the big screen requires more than just lavish and elaborate production numbers.
There are purists who think that jukebox musicals are just hodge-podge quilt works of popular songs threaded together to fill in a plot. For instance, using the music of Abba to create Mama Mia creates a built-in audience ... which more conservative music enthusiasts feel is a short-cut to generate a following. But then again, this is the same approach given to the music of the Beatles in Across the Universe (and will be rendered in Chris Martinez' Doo Bee Doo Bee Doo using the music of the Apo).
Yet there is a world of difference for something created for the stage and brought to the screen --- rather than something deliberately concocted for the movies. Sweeney Todd was quite a feat to turn into a movie --- considering the bleakness of its subject and the kind of musicality it required from its performers. Johnny Depp singing Pretty Women is a far greater stretch than Tom Cruise trying to do a Steven Tyler or an Axl Rose, right?
But that's the whole fun of it. Rock of Ages was never meant to be taken seriously. It was all fun and camp ...and everyone in the cast was having his and her moment of simply rocking it ... without taking into consideration their stature, their image and whatever it is that tends to hold back big name stars from doing what they can still be doing.
This leads me to ...
(4) There is a difference between actors and celebrities. Actors transform, evolve and challenge themselves to become something or somebody they have yet to be ... Celebrities are there for the press releases, the pictorials, the red carpet and the interviews. They are not ... uh, to use that much maligned and abused term ... artists.
Seeing Catherine Zeta-Jones do what she did in Rock of Ages did not come as a surprise. After all, this is the same lady who carried off an Oscar for her role in another and more demanding cinema musical entitled Chicago. But to see her do Michael Jackson choreography --- duping the dance steps of the video Bad with a bunch of perfect coiffured uptight chastity-belt clad Christian ladies condemning rock --- was hilarious. And refreshing.
Who would have thought that Alec Baldwin would don a ratty looking wig to portray a closeted gay owner of Bourbon Room and do a showstopping duet with Russell Brand singing I Can't Fight This Feeling? At the risk of creating a spoiler, the moment was one of the movies worth-it moments.
And then there is Tom Cruise.
He, who gained his first public attention as the rebel cadet in Taps and eventually earned his place above the title of movies after dancing in his briefs in Risky Business, has gone far a long way.
The first time he tried defying his iconic figure was in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia where he agreed --- note this down carefully --- to be part of an ensemble piece where he portrayed the role of a completely unsympathetic screwed-up macho dick personified. When he portrayed a role in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, Cruise was completely swallowed by his prosthetic make-up and body ... but he was so impressive because he was having so much fun.
Perhaps more than having fun, Tom Cruise was stretching his limits.
This is the actor who has literally banked on his franchise as an action star in Mission Impossible or has held onto his leading man status in movies like Rain Man and Jerry Maguire. But more than anything else ... and just like Zeta-Jones, Baldwin or Paul Giamatti ... they are telling the audience out there that they are actors.
And actors have fun.
Which leads me to my most important learning experience watching this movie ...
(5) In the local industry that has made a standard of more of the same-old-same-old, the lack of excitement in watching Filipino movies nowadays comes from the fact that the big time players do not want to take risks. They find their comfort zones ... and vegetate in their niches because that is all that producers want them to do ... and that is all they really want to become.
As I said, Rock of Ages is not a great earthshaking movie but it made me realize something that I think I knew all along.
Of late, Filipino commercial movies are yielding lackluster results. Even movies estimated to make a killing at the box office either end up with lukewarm results ...or fall flat on their faces.
We need not go into lengthy discussions to explain what is happening because we all know why audiences have shied away from local movies. Considering how expensive a movie ticket costs, the market of the Pinoy moviegoer has been limited to the middle class who would still prefer to watch The Avengers or Madagascar 3.
Moreover, there is simply nothing exciting happening in Philippine television and movies --- except for some independent films that are causing quite a stir abroad or in their niche markets.
(A sidebar: In the forthcoming MetroManila Film Festival this December, people are stunned why Brilliante Mendoza's Thy Womb starring Nora Aunor and Lovi Poe was not included in the roster. It was previously announced that this piece will be fielded as a possible entry. Whether reasons are technical ... or if Mendoza pulled out his movie from local exhibition at the most lucrative time for local film showings still require clarification.
Otherwise, the cinema-loving community who have the highest regard of Brilliante Mendoza's works are --- to say the least --- aghast at the possibilities as to why he was not in the list of official entries.)
Admittedly, despite the success of younger, bolder and definitely more idealistic (rather than merely pragmatic) filmmakers, the independent market is limited. Very, very limited. There is yet to be an attempt to bring the richness of the material of the indie films to the mass-based audience who still think that shrieking, convulsing and epileptic fans stepping out a moviehouse after a screening to endorse the latest commercial movie is the gauge for quality entertainment.
Commercial producers will always remain businessmen. Otherwise, if they become something else ... then they have become philanthropists (now how many of those do we really have, huh?) ... or worse, mutants.
Commercial producers are there for the profit ... because that is what they are meant to do. There is nothing wrong with that. You see, if they are part of a much larger multi-media corporation, chances are they have quotas to fulfill.
Artists, on the other hand, create. Businessmen count profit. That is the way of the world. A creative businessman measures his fulfillment by profit as well.
You do not and can never find artists as businessmen or studio executives. Let me repeat that: Never! Otherwise, there has been an unspoken miracle more stunning than that of Garabandal.
Since the biggest come-on for audiences is still the set of names on the billboard, the kind of career investment actors put up should also determine how far their lifespan should go. And let's face it: we have reached the saturation point that local actors have become generally boring. Let me repeat that again: BOOOOORING!
Why? Because it's the same-old-same-old all over again.
What you see them do on tv ... is what you see them do onscreen.
Now, honestly speaking, will you pull out two hundred pesos from your wallet to see an actor do exactly the same thing he does on the small box? Why waste your money on something you can see for free with an electric fan directed right at your crotch while you watch your tv show na nakabukaka at pumapangat ng isang sakong Lapid's sitsaron?
It is either that or you have a feeling that the actors you see on tv are undergoing on-the-job training. Licensed by eternal cuteness and just the right genes maturing post-puberty, they have become stars in their own right--- and maybe in the minds of some powerful people. But as you observe their performances in a variety of shows --- you realize that what they do on a Sunday afternoon musical extravaganza is exactly the same thing they do on a drama series. They rely on eternal cuteness.
And that, sad to say, after ten minutes is BORING.
Even as we have reached 2012, media companies still believe in essence and branding provided by their oh-so-brilliant and mathematically-constipated statisticians and surveys.
Read my lips: the focus group is a god.
What the surveys say is how the company will design policies ... as well as determine the direction of what used to be creative. The only thing spontaneous about media direction nowadays is the fart in the conference room. Everything is determined by measured taste, probabilities and limited possibilities.
So you have the same-old-same-old as a standard. And people are bored. Not only the same-old-same-old schlock but also the actors who ... bordering the eve of middle age ... still want to be matinee idols. Or tweens who bat their eyelashes and impersonate hormones going berserk as romance. Or are doing the same-old-same-old over and over again.
Rock of Ages offered the surprises because it is not only gutsy to see Tom Cruise do a role like Stacee Jaxx. Why? Because it is not merely an act of courage. It is a creative career move. It is a statement saying: I have been around for so long and I can do this ... and I am going stay much longer than you think.
And he will. With Katy and Suri in tow.
It is funny but the basic lesson in an industry like entertainment does not begin and end with box office or ratings results. It has everything to do with starting a trend ... or reinventing ... or repackaging ... or surprising the audience with what else is there to offer when they think they have already seen everything.
The moment you become predictable, you do not only lose your audience. You cease from being a performer. You become a spectator like all the rest.
And that is called career death.