Rock of Ages, directed by Adam Shankman, is the film adaptation of the smash Broadway musical that tells the story of small town girl Sherrie and city boy Drew, who meet on the Sunset Strip while pursuing their Hollywood dreams. Their rock ‘n’ roll romance is told through the heart-pounding hits of Def Leppard, Foreigner, Journey, Poison, REO Speedwagon, Twisted Sister and more.
The film features an all-star cast of Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Alec Baldwin, and Tom Cruise.
Shankman directs Rock of Ages from a screenplay by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb, based on D’Arienzo’s musical of the same name. The film is being produced by Matthew Weaver, Scott Prisand, Carl Levin, Tobey Maguire, Garrett Grant and Jennifer Gibgot.
Rock of Ages is set on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip, in 1987. And The Bourbon Room is where rockers head bang to their favorite rock-n-roll artists. At the core of the film is a boy-meets-girl love story woven into classic, only-in- Hollywood dreams of fame. Shankman’s sister and producing partner, Jennifer Gibgot, elaborates, “Like so many people in L.A., the young lovers in Rock of Ages have come here hoping to make it big and thinking it’s going to be easy. But it turns out to be a lot harder to stay on the path, to keep believing in the thing that led them there in the first place.” Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta portray the young couple with stars in their eyes at the center of the story.
The movie also shows the other side of the coin: what it was like to have achieved the fame and fortune that `80s glam bands so thoroughly and unabashedly enjoyed.
For Shankman, the start of this journey began when he saw the musical on Broadway, which earned five Tony Award nominations. “The audience was having the best time I’d ever seen at a show. Everybody knew the lyrics to all the songs and was out of their seats and singing along and having the time of their life. That enthusiasm, that sheer emotion, convinced me to make the movie…. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to make a movie musical that guys would drag their girlfriends to for a change.”
Writer Justin Theroux enjoyed working on the screenplay for the jukebox musical, an opportunity he describes as “a totally different experience. In a weird way, you write backwards from the point of view of the song. The song is always the emotional center for the characters in any given scene, so it’s fun to try to get them to that specific destination. The song does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting for you, but you have to build ramps up and down, to and from, that centerpiece.”
Writer Allan Loeb also took pleasure in fiddling around with the script’s musical moments. “At times there are two songs playing off each other, going back and forth between the different storylines, with a lot of intercutting, to enable the song to serve more than one set of characters,” he details.
Once the music was in order, it was time for casting. The opening scene of the film follows a beautiful, if somewhat naïve, girl named Sherrie Christian, who has just hopped a bus from her small Midwestern hometown in pursuit of her Hollywood dream to be a singer. Julianne Hough fit perfectly. She elaborates, “She just wants to make something of herself, even if she’s not going to be the biggest rock star in the world. She wants to be around it, the excitement and the energy of a city like that. It makes her feel alive.”
Once Sherrie is on the Sunset Strip, she finds herself in need of a job. She is then rescued by a handsome young man, Drew Boley, who offers her one. Diego Boneta won the role of Drew after a nationwide search. “Drew is a barback at The Bourbon Room, a legendary club like the Whiskey, where all the bands play,” says Boneta. “He’s a rock star in his heart, and he’s a good, honest, romantic guy.”
“We saw thousands of people for Drew,” Shankman relates. “Diego’s audition tape came across my casting website, and after I watched it, I just had that feeling. I called Jennifer and said, ‘I think I found the guy. I’m looking at him right now.’”
Being hardworking young performers on the rise themselves, it wasn’t difficult for either Hough or Boneta to understand the hopes and dreams of their characters. “Sherrie and Drew are both in L.A. for the same reasons, they have essentially the same goal in mind, so they click, they really connect,” Boneta attests. “At first, they help each other out at work, but there’s a definite attraction; things between them just grow from there.”
Everything is going perfectly… until they have a big misunderstanding. That misunderstanding is made even bigger by the fact that it comes in the form of one of music’s biggest stars, Stacee Jaxx (played by Tom Cruise), the rock god that Drew wants to be and that every woman wants to bed. The lead singer of Arsenal, Stacee is at a turning point in his career, and in his life. He’s about to go solo, and his final show with the band is at The Bourbon Room.
As for the casting of the super rock god… Shankman had a fun idea. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we got one of the biggest movie stars in the world to play one of the biggest rock stars in the world?’” Shankman reflects. “And, as luck would have it, I ran into Tom Cruise, told him I was directing this movie, that it was a musical, and that I was going to offer him this part. He said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said I was. Then I described Stacee to him and he laughed really hard. The next thing I knew, he was in, and I was making a musical with Tom Cruise.”
To play the role, Cruise underwent a complete transformation, and Shankman admired his diligence. “From the moment he signed on, Tom started training his voice with an incredible vocal coach, Ron Anderson. I remember the first time we heard him sing. He’s got this outrageous, four-octave range—turns out he has opera singers in his ancestry, so he’s probably genetically predisposed to sing, but no one’s ever asked him to before. I’m just the lucky recipient of this revelation, I suppose,” he smiles.
Stacee may have the world at his feet, with groupies who idolize him and a massive entourage at his beck and call, the only person with the integrity to see Stacee Jaxx for who he really is Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack, played by Malin Akerman. She explains her character, “Constance comes to The Bourbon to interview Stacee Jaxx, who is on the road to becoming a washed-up rock star but who was a truly great rocker in his early days. She really believed in him, so she’s frustrated that he’s given up. And he’s clearly never met a woman who has stood up to him before, which intrigues him, excites him, and confuses him all at once. But when she tries to pull the truth out of him, things don’t go quite as she’d planned.”
Constance’s interview is arranged by Jaxx’s manager, Paul Gill (played by Paul Giamatti), who struggles to control his uncooperative client’s image, but not necessarily with Stacee’s best interests at heart. Giamatti says of his character, “He’s a sleazy, manipulative jerk who’s in it to squeeze as much money as he can out of the artists he manages,” the actor states. “He and Stacee have a very dysfunctional relationship. Stacee may be a monster, but Paul created the monster, and now the monster is terrifying to him. It’s a pretty sick association at this point.”
And he isn’t the only one with dollar signs of eyes, so does the club’s owner Dennis Dupree, played by Alec Baldwin. Baldwin found a unique way to look at his character. “Dennis Dupree’s whole life has been music. Rock ‘n’ roll is his religion and The Bourbon Room is his church, which I guess makes him the pastor.” Dupree’s best friend and sounding board at the club is his technician, Lonny, played by comedian and actor Russell Brand. “Lonny represents the spirit of rock as the spirit of freedom and change,” Brand says of his character. “He and Dennis are true rock ‘n’ roll veterans, and Lonny’s devoted to the music and to the club.”
And of course every good film has a villain… in this case it is Patricia Whitmore (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of the mayor, has declared war on the Sunset Strip, and her inaugural battleground is The Bourbon Room. The character does not appear in the stage musical. “We created the role of the mayor’s wife in order to revisit the cultural censorship that was going on in that period,” Shankman says. “I think Patricia Whitmore is the kind of woman who sees her role as first lady of Los Angeles as being much more important than her husband’s role as mayor, and there’s no question as to who wears the pants in the family,” Zeta-Jones suggests.
Once they had the cast on board, shooting began. Shankman was devoted to putting forth “a tribute, honor and loving embrace of the music, which is not just hard rock but also `80s pop and rock anthems. The music people know and respond to and which brings back not only a feeling of nostalgia, but also a new enjoyment of that kind of music.”
The director believed from the beginning that the music in Rock of Ages would serve as his roadmap leading him where he needed to go. The movie features such rocking anthems as Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and ballads like Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
The cast spent weeks prepping—vocal training and recordings, dance rehearsals, physical conditioning—before filming began, and continued to train throughout the shoot. Though both Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are singers, they had to learn a different style of singing for the film. Under the tutelage of vocal consultant Ron Anderson, Hough had to discard her country twang, and Boneta his pop tone, so they could embrace a harder rock sound. “We basically went to rock star college,” Boneta states.
Guitar consultant Eric Jackson also had Tom and Diego study the stage presence and performance styles of some of the greats, like Jimmy Page, Slash, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, Prince and Lenny Kravitz, as well as some of the artists whose music they’d be playing, including Brett Michaels, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, and Dee Snider.
Complex choreography was involved in all of the stage performances, as well as the dance numbers involving the entire cast, collectively and individually, and sometimes as many as 500 extras. Shankman’s friend and colleague Mia Michaels (a regular choreographer on the dance show So You Think You Can Dance) made her feature film choreography debut with Rock of Ages. “There is nothing in the film, down to the last knuckle, that isn’t choreographed, and Mia is one of the greatest choreographers out there today; I needed Mia to put an interesting twist on things,” the director says.
Shankman recalls, “There was a point during the shooting of ‘Any Way You Want It’ at the Venus Club when Mia looked at me and said, ‘What have I done?’ I said to her, ‘You’ve delivered.’”
When it came to actually shooting the film, production designer Jon Hutman began by focusing on three distinct set pieces: The Bourbon Room, the Venus Gentleman’s Club and, of course, the renowned Sunset Strip. “L.A. is a car city, and the way most of us experience the Sunset Strip is by driving from one end of it to the other, compressing the distance between the iconic elements,” Hutman observes.
“We scouted the world for this movie,” Garrett Grant notes. “The Strip was key, but we knew we couldn’t use the real thing, so we went all over the United States and even Sydney, Australia, trying to find the right layout and architecture. Then we came upon this strip in Miami which, thanks to Jon, worked perfectly.”
The walls of The Bourbon Room, including Dennis’s office on the balcony of the club, were littered with memorabilia: coasters, photographs, ticket stubs, posters. “We even hung 500 bras and 300 ties from the ceiling above the bar,” Hutman says, “which was a great touch. Our set decorator, K.C. Fox, had a lot of fun with this set. We wanted it to feel like the place where rock ‘n’ roll was born.”
By the time it was finished, Hutman jokes, “It was the nicest strip club I’ve ever been in. A little Vegas, a little burlesque, but just seedy enough for the Sunset Strip.” The film also required Hutman to recreate the world famous Hollywood Sign— where Drew and Sherrie have their first date—on top of a 250-foot landfill, the highest point in South Florida.
Though Hutman’s team set the scene, it was up to costume designer Rita Ryack to fill it with fashions from the time. “We were going for heightened realism,” she says. “Leather pants, shoulder pads, wide belts and fringe were all hard to resist, but we wanted to stay away from the wardrobe becoming a joke, so we toned it down a bit. Adam wanted the humor to come through the characters and the story, not the clothes.”
For young couple Sherrie and Drew, Ryack reflected their individual story arcs through their clothing. Diego Boneta starts in t-shirts and jeans, and later wears headbands, shiny scarves and space boots. Reflecting her metamorphosis from Midwestern girl to rocker chick, Julianne Hough went from floral dresses to denim miniskirts and cut-up Bourbon Room tees.
Adam Shankman reflects, “From creating the biggest rock star on the planet, to recreating the smallest detail of life on the Sunset Strip in the `80s, I had a very specific vision of how ‘Rock of Ages’ was all going to come together to draw audiences in. I think we’ve got a funny and heartfelt story with absolutely rockin’ performances of songs we all loved so much and remembered so well, with an unbelievable cast, and I really believe audiences are gonna have the most fun they’ve had in… decades,” he smiles.
Check out Rock of Ages in theaters June 15. [PG-13, 123 mins]