After a supporting role in 2010′s Burlesque and starring in the Footloose remake in 2011, Julianne Hough‘s logical next step in music-infused movies was to tackle the stage-to-screen adaptation of Rock of Ages. She plays naïve Sherrie Christian — literally, the “small-town girl living in a lonely world” of the movie’s climactic “Don’t Stop Believing” number — who has abandoned Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the glittering temptations of Los Angeles. But as hard as Julianne tries, hers is one of the movie’s most uneven performances.
Her singing voice is perfectly average, which makes her less memorable than either the movie’s few highlights (like Catherine Zeta-Jones doing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”) or the cringingly awful ones (Paul Giamatti, Alec Baldwin, etc.). And maybe it’s Justin Theroux‘s shaky script — which changes several key details from the Broadway musical’s book — but in almost every scene Julianne seems confused at her lines. Her voice does that thing where it raises at the end into a question?, which gets really old when you’re trying to take seriously her dedication to being a waitress and singing up on the stage at The Bourbon Room.
Deadspin has a great article titled “So, Who Embarrasses Himself The Most In Rock of Ages?” and to be fair, Julianne is not the worst offender. She actually scores a 6 out of 10, with the writers saying, “She’s got a nice voice, she’s physically attractive, she seems game for anything, and I’m pretty certain she’d never heard of Axl Rose until this movie.” Her score matches up to my feelings: She could just be doing so much more in this role.
What’s most boggling about this miscasting is that the critics were mostly united in their appreciation for Julianne in Footloose. Most outlets compared her to a Friends-era Jennifer Aniston, saying that her charm and sex appeal made her seem unattainable even though we knew that she would fall for the male lead. With Rock of Ages, you glimpse that same confidence only in unconvincing spurts.
Part of the problem may be that Sherrie’s sexuality was really toned down for the movie. In the stage musical, she and Drew (Diego Boneta, adequately described as “puppydog”) mistakenly believe that the other only wants to be friends. So when Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) rolls into town, Sherrie jumps him and they have sex in his dressing room while Drew is performing onstage. The movie introduces an entirely new character in the virginal Constance Sack (Malin Akerman), the Rolling Stone reporter who has a weirdly chaste sex scene with Stacee; their love story is what redeems this jaded rocker.
Meanwhile in movie-adaptation land, Sherrie and Drew are actually dating and seem to think they’ve fallen in love in a mere three days. (She gets hired at The Bourbon on a Tuesday, and by Stacee’s performance that Friday she and Drew are singing “More Than Words” in an attempt to trade I-love-yous.) It’s typical in musicals for the leads to fall for each other seemingly at the drop of a hat, but this superfast courtship only undermines any emotional groundwork Julianne and Diego are trying to lay. It also makes it that more implausible for Drew to think Sherrie slept with Stacee Jaxx, seeing as they’re supposed to be oh-so-in-love.
I’d say that Julianne’s voice is decent; not tone-deaf, but not particularly skilled. She holds her own pretty well in this medley of “Harden My Heart” and “Shadows of the Night,” but once you get past her rousing first chorus, she pales in comparison to Mary J. Blige, so.
I know it’s catty of us to poke fun at Julianne’s relationship with Ryan Seacrest, but to be honest, that’s how we first found out who she was. (Before then, she was a dancer on a reality show.) Footloose showed that she does have talent for movie musicals, but the lesson here is that producers need to let her embody more sexual characters. Her playing virginal heroines comes off as disingenuous; case in point, Sherrie becomes interesting only after “Harden My Heart” above, when she becomes a stripper at the Venus Club.
Like I said, Theroux and co. reworked the Rock of Ages script to make Stacee a lot more redeemable. He ends the musical fleeing to Uruguay on charges of statutory rape, whereas the movie has a predictably schmaltzy epilogue. Another scene that didn’t make it to the silver screen was Sherrie being forced to give Stacee a lap dance at the Venus Club; obviously it carries more heft in the musical since they’ve slept together and he’s rejected her like one of his many groupies. According to an interview with Julianne, she and Tom did shoot the scene, but it got deleted. (Much to the relief of Ryan and her father.)
Julianne seems like a lovely girl and like she has some burgeoning talent. She just needs to be cast in the right parts, otherwise the only role we’ll remember her as is Ryan Seacrest’s Arm Candy.