Rock of Ages: Making the Musical

Making the Musical
Shooting a musical can be grueling, so it helps when it’s a labor of love. Adam 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.”

Shankman’s conviction was shared by the film’s executive music producer, Adam Anders, who also scored the film with Peer Astrom.

“Adam is the best guy doing mash-ups in the business now,” Shankman says. “He really understood how each song was going to be used, how it fit in with the characters, and how to keep it close enough to the original tracks, while at the same time make it original and fresh.”

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. “I’ve been taking vocal lessons since I was eight, but I had to retrain my voice to a higher range. I also had to develop a raspy quality, but learn to sing in that way without hurting my vocal chords.”

Under the direction of music supervisor Matt Sullivan, guitar consultant Eric Jackson—dubbed “The Mr. Miyagi of guitar” by Boneta—taught both Boneta and Tom Cruise to play for the film, starting from scratch as neither had really played before. Though he was impressed by how well each man picked it up, Jackson devised a means to encourage the two actors to learn as quickly as possible: friendly competition. Briefly mentioning how “Tom could already play this” to Boneta, or vice versa, spurred the men on to practice even harder.

The prop department armed Jackson with 30 guitars for the production, including Jackson Charvel, Guild and BC Rich brands. Stacee Jaxx’s Jackson Kelly guitar is a one-of-a-kind, custom-made instrument, hand-airbrushed with flames on the side.

Jackson also had his pupils 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 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.

“Adam is a great director; he lets the art breathe,” Michaels says. “If you do that, it will show you the way, and that’s what happened for me on this film. I couldn’t be happier with the results.”

“Mia’s work is just stunning, we were so lucky to have her,” Jennifer Gibgot says. “She and Adam complement each other so well; what he wanted out of the numbers and what she brought to the table were just exciting to watch. I don’t think she’s had a chance to do anything this big and multi-faceted before, but Adam pushed her, and now the floodgates are open.”

The style of dance in the movie is a departure for Michaels, who enjoyed combining sexuality and humor in several numbers. “This film required a lot of exploration and breaking down walls for me, both professionally and personally,” she reveals. “I wanted to allow the experience to roll right through me, and it did. The result was very primal and raw, just like the music of the time.”

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.'”

That scene alone involved Mary J. Blige, Julianne Hough, 18 dancers, five “pole specialists,” and a room full of extras playing patrons of the club. Hough, herself a professional dancer and choreographer, states, “Mia is one of the best. Even though we have very different styles—I’m more of a feminine, sexy dancer and she calls herself ‘Amazon woman’ and incorporates bigger, stronger moves—it was so much fun to combine the two for this film. She brought so much strength to the women’s performances.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who, as Shankman points out, is the only actor in decades to win an Oscar® for a performance in a movie musical, was equally thrilled to work with Michaels. “Dancers have a special language,” the actress says, “and building a close bond with someone of her caliber is so extraordinary. She’s very specific in her dance moves, and when you open yourself up and let yourself into her vibe, it’s almost cathartic. I enjoyed every minute working with her.”