Musical movies are bad for musical theatre

Why Danny Austin won’t be seeing Rock of Ages

There are people out there who are excited to see Rock of Ages . I know this not because I’ve met any of them nor because I relate to them. It’s simply a matter of probability. Somewhere somehow somebody probably exists who has had June 15 circled on their calendar for months and simply cannot wait for Rock of Ages .

And good for them. One man’s Rock of Ages is another man’s Wesley Snipes movie. This is a judgment-free zone guys Reel Talk won’t discriminate against you because of your terrible taste. I genuinely hope you go to the theatre this weekend buy yourself a 7-Up and maybe some Maltesers if you’re feeling crazy and enjoy singing along to bloated ’80s arena rock anthems. I want that for you really I do.

But your enjoyment of this film is going to hinge entirely on your connection to that particular era of music and that makes Rock of Ages less of a movie than a two-hour karaoke session where everyone is still holding on to the so-called magic of a culturally irrelevant era of rock music — and a notoriously lame era at that.

And far be it from me to defend the good name of the Hollywood musical. Truthfully I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about the history of the genre as I wish I was. But the turn towards big-budget productions that feature no original music — which has sped up dramatically since Mamma Mia! — has been degenerative and frankly has made things a lot more boring.

While musical theatre was never a politics-free zone it’s always been an art form with pop sensibilities. Audiences have traditionally been okay with forgiving a shortage of complex characters and subversive storylines. Ultimately it was the songs that counted.

And really great original music.

Ultimately my reasons for being a Rock of Ages hater stem exclusively from the music. I’m happy to accept the film’s underdeveloped plot and cardboard characters but only if I’m being offered music that I can’t hear on classic rock radio during my daily commute.

Should I just accept that I’m not this film’s target audience? Probably. But this movie’s success could seriously damage the prospects of seeing original musical productions on screen in the near future. If Rock of Ages opens big it won’t be long before we’re hearing about a studio bankrolling an adaptation of We Will Rock You and there will be even less of an imperative for anyone to fund creative original productions.

This has already happened on the stage where the theatres on Broadway and in the West End are littered with adaptations of Billy Elliot and Dirty Dancing . Those productions come with built-in audiences and are less of a risk for the investors.

And I get it economics matter. Those productions give actors and stagehands and everyone else in the industry work. But as I noted earlier the magic of musical theatre (and musical film) has always been that it’s existed in a different sphere than the rest of pop culture. And the combination of the two hasn’t seen a rise in the prominence of traditional musical theatre in pop culture it’s simply resulted in pop culture taking over the world of musical theatre.