I have visited dozens of movie sets over the past four and a half years - fantasies, action-thrillers, comedies, and dramas - but I've never stepped foot on the set of a musical until last August, when I found myself immersed in glam rock awesomeness on the Miami set of Rock of Ages. As I mentioned in my set visit preview a few weeks ago, director Adam Shankman and his crew transformed a few blocks of Miami into a fantastic, 1987 version of Hollywood's Sunset Strip for this adaptation of Chris D'Arienzo's Broadway stage play.
When I first arrived, we not only saw iconic Strip locales such as the Rainbow Room, Guitar Center, and Tower Records, but there were also a slew of 80s cars driving to the set. Among them were a Pontiac Fiero, Volkswagon Cabriolet, Chevy Monte Carlo, Datsun 280Z, Chevy Chevette and even a Dodge Reliant K (a.k.a. the K-Car). There was also a Shell gas station they used for the production, and it was said that when shooting wasn't taking place, several cars were seen pulling into the station, drawn to the $1.17 per gallon price on display.
If you're not familiar with the story, Rock of Ages centers on two up and coming young singers, Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), whose paths cross at The Bourbon Room, a club which launched several musical careers back in the day, but has fallen on somewhat hard times. While the story is primarily told through Sherrie's perspective, there are a number of intersecting story lines, including Bourbon Club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) trying to keep his club afloat, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) becoming romantically involved with a journalist (Malin Akerman), and two L.A. political leaders (Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones) trying to put an end to this era of rock and roll excess.
"I kind of did a greatest hits version of it but it was my greatest hits so they are either going to like it or not. There are things that people are going to lose their minds over, in a good way. Lets put it this way, the biggest change I made, well two big changes, first was that in the play the point of view is from Lonnie, the narrator's perspective. The point of view of the movie is Sherrie's perspective. So I made it from our lead character instead of a side person. The second thing is that I changed the two villains of the piece because I didn't understand why two Germans wanted to change the Sunset Strip. I could never understand the emotional investment so I took it from what was going on in the period and made it more like Tipper Gore's censorship. When I watch the greatest documentary, the documentary that this whole fucking movie is based on, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, the whole parents against satanic music, rock and roll thing. I used that because it was actually real and I pumped it up like I did in Hairspray with racism. So I used Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bryan Cranston as two public officials trying to shut it down. So rather than making it completely non-related to Los Angeles characters I made it people who are running Los Angeles and there is a real investment."
The filmmaker also revealed there will be 23 songs in the film, including a number of mash-ups which combine two classic songs into one new version. One of these mash-ups is Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" and Starship's "We Built This City," a glimpse of which was shown in the first trailer. I grew up listening to both those classic songs quite regularly, and it's rather amazing how both those tracks work together so brilliantly.
The director also told us one of his goals with Rock of Ages was to create a musical that straight men would enjoy.
"I was so stunned when I went to see the play that the house was full of straight guys rocking out, freaking out, and loving a musical. I was like, if I can make a musical for straight guys, are you f*&$ing kidding me? Then I'd be a rock star. That is a big deal for me to be able to grab that audience and make them ashamedly admit that they love a f*&$ing musical that is really sexy, that would be awesome. So that was my way in to doing this whole project, doing a musical for straight guys."
Aside from just getting to walk around on this amazing set, one of the highlights of my visit was getting to see Tom Cruise's full performance of "Pour Some Sugar On Me," in Adam Shankman's trailer. It's something you truly have to see to believe. Like him or not, the one thing you can never accuse Tom Cruise of is any sort of failure to commit to a role. You don't see Tom Cruise in a long wig with no shirt on singing a Def Leppard song. You see Stacee Jaxx, the fictional, iconic rocker known the world over for his legendary music. You have never seen Tom Cruise like this before. Ever. It was truly a magnificent sight to behold, to see the world's biggest movie star completely transform himself into this musical world's biggest rock star. Here's what Adam Shankman added after we watched the footage.
"This is a guy who is 49 years old. He should be playing a senator! And this is what he's doing instead. That is his voice, that's him singing and we did not really help him. You know what I mean? That is him singing and that is him dancing and every single movement from every finger is choreographed. He worked on all of that. I could not be more proud. But now, the weirdest thing is that I have him doing that, Russell doing that, Catherine doing that, Alec doing that, Diego, Julianne, and Paul, I mean, like, I have them all with that level of commitment. So I mean it's intense! It's super intense."
"I think Tom Cruise really inspired me a lot. This was the first time he has ever done a musical, and just seeing the way he prepared for this... I heard you guys saw 'Pour Some Sugar on Me.' I don't know what you guys thought about it, but I was there that day. I wasn't even shooting that day, I just wanted to check it out. Every single person in the audience was 100% connected to whatever it was he was doing. That's something you don't learn, that's something you have. All the rehearsals he did, all the preparation, vocal, choreography, guitar, was really inspiring. The second he got to the stage and got to perform, he just lost fear and committed 100% and connected to an audience. It was a rock concert, it truly was. Me being a performer and a singer, I got chills every single take."
Before arriving on the set, I was very curious to see how these musical scenes are handled on a live set. We learned that Adam Shankman recorded most of the songs weeks before shooting started, and those songs were piped in through an array of speakers on the set. For instance, the major sequence we saw involved Sherrie, who has just arrived in L.A., fresh off the bus with her suitcase in hand. The scene features the denim-clad Sherrie singing David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise" while walking down Sunset Boulevard. It was very intriguing to hear this new version of the song, and to see how the actress has to match up the song with her overall performance. Julianne Hough, who plays the Midwest native Sherrie, told us this scene somewhat mirrors her own experience in moving to Hollywood.
"Are you kidding? I was skipping down the Sunset Strip singing at the top of my lungs when I first came to L.A. It is obviously a definite heightened reality. I think when I got to L.A. I wanted to go see the Hollywood sign. I wanted to go see Rodeo Drive. I wanted to do all of that. You see those iconic places in L.A. and it is like, 'Oh, my gosh. I am here.' But, yeah, it is fun."
Julianne Hough also told us more about the multiple stories being told in this musical.
"Well, it is kind of set through Sherrie's eyes. We start with Sherrie arriving in L.A. on Sunset Blvd. It basically starts out with her getting mugged and then she gets a job at the Bourbon Room. The Bourbon Room is basically where every major band that has made it has gotten their start at. So she knows who Dennis Dupree Alec Baldwin) is. She is a singer and wants to meet him and be involved. But she needs a job to start out with so she ends up working at the Bourbon Room. She meets Drew (Diego Boneta), who takes care of her for a little bit and they end up falling in love. It is so hard to explain because there is so much. It is like seven movies in one. So then Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is the biggest rock star out there and he is coming to do his last show with Arsenal before he goes solo. While he is there, there is a miscommunication that happens and Drew thinks that Sherrie slept with Stacee, but it didn't happen. So they have this argument and she quits so dramatically. The Bourbon Room is going under because they haven't paid their taxes so the Mayor and his wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, are just trying to get rid of the strip and clean it up. So it is totally in their favor. So they are just trying to get enough money for the Bourbon Room to stay open. Meanwhile, I am Mr. Burn Out and Drew has gotten a manager and he is basically not a rock star anymore. He has turned into this boy band guy. So we are both doing separate things that we do not want to do. In the end, it all works out. I will leave you with that."
One part of the play that was changed a bit for the movie was a scene where Sherrie gives Stacee a lap dance, which Julianne Hough elaborated on.
"I was learning that I might get this role, but the play was coming into town into L.A. So I went and saw it before I technically had the role, but we were in talks already. So when I saw the play I did see that part and I was like. 'Oh....yeah! Alright. That is fun and it is Tom Cruise.' (Laughs) So, yeah, I saw that part and there is a sort of lap dance thing that happens. It is a little bit different. There are some differences in the play that there is in the movie. I like the fact that Sherrie doesn't sleep with Stacee and it is just a misunderstanding. I think it is more likable for her in the end. You kind of want her and Drew to get together."
Diego Boneta is still fairly new to the acting scene, although he started out as a musician, releasing two albums in Latin American markets. He told us that this project helped him realize that he prepares for his musical endeavors the same way he gets ready for an acting role.
"Something that I learned on this project that really surprised me was the same way I studied and rehearsed the songs, meaning the intention, the feeling, the interpretation, the intensity, was so similar to how I approached the acting scenes. Tom and I were having this conversation, when we were practicing guitar. 'Dude, it's crazy how after learning to sing and record at the studio, it's just the same way you approach acting.' I had never realized that before, because it was the first time I had ever done both at the same time. That was really cool, and it really helped both. It was just very cool."
The actor/musician also told us about a scene I'm looking forward to a lot, because it pokes fun at the boy band craze, and features actor/director Eli Roth as a music video director.
"First of all, as an actor, it was a great scene, because Paul Giamatti is in it. It was a long scene, like two or two and a half pages, and Eli Roth was the director. Just working with amazing actors is such an honor, and I'm just so humble to be having scenes with these guys. I couldn't stop laughing with Eli Roth, and Paul... just everything he does is great. It's like having the absolute best dance partner. It just works. One of the things that Eli Roth said in one of the takes, he goes, 'Look, you skinny Marky Mark' (Laughs). It's all over the top. We're all wearing spy outfits, with these coats and hats. It's completely the opposite of the long hair and the bandanas. The whole joke is being in a boy band is worse than being a stripper. Sherrie goes to the strip club, I join a boy band, and in the end, we reunite and talk and come to an understanding of why we broke up."
I don't think I've ever been on a set before with a such an energetic cast and crew, and this was towards the end of a three month shoot, with just six days left of principal photography on an insanely muggy August night in Miami. We even saw Adam Shankman doing cartwheels on the set, in between takes. To be honest, though, it's probably very easy to be that excited with a stellar ensemble cast, amazing set pieces, and classic tunes blasting throughout the night, setting the tone for what should be one hell of a musical extravaganza.
That about wraps it up from my day on the Rock of Ages set. This musical arrives in theaters June 15, and the soundtrack, which should be wonderful in its own right, debuts June 5. I have never been an enormous fan of the musical genre, but I appreciate a good one when I see it (i.e. Chicago, Singin' in the Rain). If Adam Shankman wanted create a musical that straight guys will enjoy, then consider me as one heterosexual man counted towards that goal, because Rock of Ages looks like an incredibly fun ride that will bring out the long-haired inner rocker in all of us.