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AT THE MOVIES

He still rocks

'Rock of Ages' director Adam Shankman relished the '80s on the Sunset Strip

June 14, 2012|Nicole Sperling
  • Director Adam Shankman gets into the rock spirit in front of the Whisky A Go-Go for his latest movie, "Rock of Ages."
Director Adam Shankman gets into the rock spirit in front of the Whisky A… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Night flatters the Sunset Strip. At sunrise, dead cockroaches line the sidewalk outside the famed Whisky a Go Go. Bus exhaust fills the air. The sound of crunching metal echoes off the buildings as deliverymen roll up the back panels of their trucks, making their morning drops.

Filmmaker Adam Shankman is posing for a photographer on the corner of San Vicente and Sunset at 10 a.m., trying to give his best rock 'n' roll face, though he readily admits his edge is as sharp as a butter knife. "Yeah, I'm so rock 'n' roll," says the man behind populist movies including "Hairspray" and "The Pacifier" but who's perhaps best known as a judge and choreographer on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance." "I'm a little Jew from Brentwood."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 23, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Adam Shankman: In the June 14 Calendar section, an article about "Rock of Ages" director Adam Shankman misspelled the first name of actor Bryan Cranston as Brian.

A moment later, a drug-addled homeless man puts his arm around Shankman. He wants to join the photo. Shankman brushes him off as gracefully as possible. "Dead cockroaches and a meth addict," he says. "What a great way to start the day."

Despite the bleak reality of the Strip, Shankman, 47, has a deep fondness for the boulevard. To him, it's not just the place that launched the Doors, made pink-Corvette driving Angelyne the first reality superstar and was home to the famed Tower Records -- it's where he came of age in the late '70s and early '80s.

The building that now houses the Soho House is where his dad had his law firm -- a group of hot-shot music attorneys who represented stars as diverse as Barry White and Paul Williams. (With a soda fountain in the lobby, it was a favorite destination for the fun-loving boy with a sweet tooth.)

At 13, Shankman's first concert was at the Strip's Roxy. And in his later teenage years, he used what he recollects as a "brilliant" fake ID to gain access to the Rainbow Room.

It's partly this nostalgia that led Shankman to direct the film adaptation of "Rock of Ages," based on the Broadway jukebox musical set in the world of hair bands and arena rock. Despite his success with "Hairspray" in 2007, he was reluctant to delve back into a musical, especially one filled with pop-music songs not initially written for a theater show, until he caught the Broadway production.

"It was surreal watching that many straight people go this crazy for this musical," said Shankman, who is gay. "A Broadway theater full of men, they all knew the words and it's not 'La Cage [aux Folles].' That was unbelievable."

"Rock of Ages," which opens Friday, centers on the Bourbon Room, a fictional centerpiece of the 1987 Sunset Strip. It follows a young country girl (Julianne Hough) who moves to Los Angeles to fulfill her dreams of becoming a star. Along the way she meets a cast of characters, each on a different rung of the fame ladder.

Shankman, who successfully transformed John Travolta into an overweight mother in "Hairspray," put together a star-studded cast including the scene-stealing Tom Cruise in the role of aging rocker Stacee Jaxx, a drunken lout whose career is unraveling in a fog of debauchery.

Besides Cruise, "Rock" features a supporting cast including Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige and Brian Cranston. But the $75-million Warner Bros. production is no sure box office smash.

Metal-plated

The hair bands of the '80s have been out of style since, well, the '80s, and while their songs rouse audiences on Broadway and during "American Idol" auditions, vocalists like Poison's Bret Michaels are better known to today's prime movie-going demographic as reality stars, not lead singers behind glam metal anthems like "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."

Maybe it's the rose-colored glasses of hindsight or just the naivete of youth, but to Shankman, the '80s were a simpler time.

"These arena rock guys were throwing couches out of hotel rooms and screaming, and there never seemed to be any problem with it," Shankman says. "It was endless sex with endless partners with no threat of AIDS, seemingly. You never heard the word rehab, yet they were doing mountains of drugs -- they've all admitted to it. But there never seemed to be consequences."

It's child's play to lampoon the decade that celebrated big hair and even bigger shoulder pads, but Shankman said he was seeking a different tone.

"I wanted to express a great deal of love to the period and to the characters. As out there as they were, I wanted to make them as real as possible," said Shankman, who did a lot of research, and found Penelope Spheeris' 1988 documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years" particularly rich. He says he pulled the most outrageous moments of the movie from that film -- like the opening shot of Cruise in a codpiece surrounded by a gaggle of half-naked women. That scene came from an interview with KISS' Paul Stanley.

"For me to say I'm going to make fun of it, that's putting a hat on a hat. It's ridiculous," he added. "I told the actors I want this played as a drama where the stakes are all incredibly real. And they did. They listened to me."

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