Jeff John, the owner of the Fort Lauderdale concert venue Revolution Live, has hosted everyone from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga to The Smashing Pumpkins and John Legend.
But nothing, he says, compares to the night Tom Cruise took the stage to perform Pour Some Sugar on Me.
“I’ve had 900 shows in this room since I’ve been here,” John says. “But the night Tom was up there, there was all the usual amount of electricity you get from a live concert, plus a little more. There were 600 extras in the room, plus another hundred crew members. He had a packed house. There was beer flying through the air — everything. It was extremely exciting. Unbelievable, really.”
The scene is one of the high points of Rock of Ages, the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical about the 1980s hair metal scene in Los Angeles. The movie, which opens Friday, was filmed entirely in South Florida last summer. The Fort Lauderdale club is renamed The Bourbon Room in the film; another concert scene, featuring Cruise singing Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive, was shot at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood. A stretch of North Miami Avenue doubles as the Sunset Strip. A scene set at the foot of the Hollywood sign was shot at a Broward landfill.
Lured by Florida tax incentives, producer Garrett Grant and director Adam Shankman opted to film the $70 million production throughout Miami-Dade and Broward instead of California, using loads of computer-generated special effects and trickery to sell the illusion.
“When you watch the movie, the characters will be inside my club, and then they open the door and walk outside, and it looks like they’re in L.A.,” John says.
But Shankman, who had previously transplanted the smash Broadway hit Hairspray to the screen, wasn’t preoccupied with locations and logistics when he signed on to the project. Instead, the filmmaker concentrated on how to turn the stage production — which was essentially a jukebox musical — into a real movie.
“I wanted Rock of Ages to be a translation from stage to screen that made sense,” he said during a recent visit to Miami to promote the film. “The play is a kind of spinning top, and you need to anchor that in reality. You can’t get away with certain things on the screen that you can do onstage. You have to get deep inside people’s eyes, and the characters need to have real emotional stakes.”
There are also a lot of characters. Rock of Ages tells the stories of the sweet romance between fresh-off-the-bus Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and the aspiring musician Drew (Diego Boneta); the concert god Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), his weasely manager (Paul Giamatti) and the Rolling Stone reporter who comes between them (Malin Akerman); a politician (Bryan Cranston) whose Tipper Gore-ish wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is leading a crusade against rock music; the operator of a high-class strip joint (Mary J. Blige); and a struggling club owner (Alec Baldwin) trying to keep his business going with the help of his partner (Russell Brand).
The screenplay for Rock of Ages takes liberties with the book of the musical and also adds tunes by bands that originally declined to participate (most critically Def Leppard, whose song gave the show its title).
“When I first got the job to direct Hairspray, John Waters took me out to lunch and told me to forget what his movie did or what the play did,” Shankman said. “I had to do my own thing. No director should ever feel like they have to tell a story someone else’s way, because it will turn out to be a flaming disaster if you do. So I took him seriously.”
Released in 2007, Hairspray grossed $200 million worldwide, but the soundtrack consisted of original songs. Rock of Ages is wallpapered with classic radio hits from a wide range of artists, from Poison to Pat Benatar to Bon Jovi, and its starry, A-list cast should also help attract a wide audience.
In one particularly sexy scene, Cruise and Akerman perform a duet of Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is while their characters get extremely personal with each other. Although the sequence contains no nudity, the sexually suggestive undertones push the PG-13 rating to its limits.
“You can get away with a lot when you make something funny,” Shankman said proudly of the scene. “The way we got through that scene was to make it ironic. Tom and Malin are doing the only thing their characters know how to interpret as love, which is sex. There’s something humorous about having people sing this big, searching song while they’re having sex on an air hockey table.”
The other cultural factor lined up in Rock of Ages’ favor — the reason why this intentionally cheesy, light movie has been programmed in the middle of a summer season thick with comic-book pictures and sequels and sci-fi — is the snowballing popularity of the jukebox musical format. In the summer of 2008, the ABBA sing-a-long trifle Mamma Mia! grossed an astounding $600 million worldwide. That one, too, featured big-name actors singing, often badly.
“In the 1970s, you had TV variety shows,” Shankman said. “In the 1980s, MTV and music videos took their place. In the late 1990s, you got the beginning of the talent competition shows — American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, all of them. They in turn kicked the door open for Glee, which spun off that cultural phenomenon and became its own thing.
“The result is an entire generation of rabid fans who crave song and dance — especially when it’s songs that they know. We made Rock of Ages for them.”