He still rocks
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.”
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.
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.”
Especially Cruise, who spent months in collaboration with Shankman, honing the costume, choreography and character of Jaxx. The two discussed everything, down to the gun tattoos stenciled across his lower abs.
“Adam and I inspired each other,” Cruise, 49, said at the Los Angeles premiere last week. “He knows that era so well and he knows musicals so well. He keeps it light but is not nervous to go there when you have to.”
For Shankman, who filmed the movie primarily in Miami, where a set re-creating the Sunset Strip was built, the collaboration with Cruise was paramount to the film’s success.
“I really worry about losing money for people and hurting people’s careers, and this movie was a really big gamble,” he said. “But I felt that when the Tom thing happened, even though that was the biggest gamble of all, I knew I was going into this with a partner who was not going to give it 100% but 250% and I felt like I wasn’t alone.”
While Motley Crue didn’t license any of its ‘80s anthems for the film, the filmmakers were able to secure rights to songs that eluded the stage production, specifically Guns ‘N Roses’ “Paradise City” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Rock of Ages.”
Shankman says that as a youth he was a “party boy” with teenage aspirations that went no further then being rich and having a good time.
A gymnast as a child, Shankman landed a spot at Juilliard with no formal dance training. He dropped out after a year and began performing in music videos. He conned his way into his first choreography job by lying about his experience and parlayed that into work in film and television. He moved into directing in 2001 with the Jennifer Lopez-starrer “The Wedding Planner.”
Back in the day
Though Shankman marvels at his success, Jennifer Salke -- president of NBC Television and Shankman’s close pal since the two were 16 -- said she isn’t surprised. Her first glimpse of him was during his high school play, portraying Fagin in “Oliver Twist.”
“I still remember thinking this is someone unlike anyone I’ve ever known in my life,” Salke said. “He’s always the performer. He was the one who could do the back flip at the party and land on his feet. He was full of social energy, fun and mischief. Lots of mischief.”
Shankman can no longer do a back flip without hurting himself, according to Salke, but his sense of mischief hasn’t abated. And he has been able to turn his sense of whimsy into something of a brand.
It’s why New Line’s president and chief operating officer Toby Emmerich hired Shankman for “Rock of Ages.”
“The secret of the movie is it makes you feel good,” Emmerich said. “I don’t totally understand it, but I’ve rarely worked on a film where almost no matter what, you feel good after seeing it. It’s not true of every musical I’ve seen, but it’s true for both ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Hairspray.’ That has to be Adam.”
Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.