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Director grew up surrounded by Rock of Ages

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LOS ANGELES -- In describing the '80s rock anthems that form the nucleus of the new movie musical Rock of Ages, director Adam Shankman stops short of saying he was a fan of the film's array of power ballads when they were being played on the Los Angeles radio stations of his youth.

"This music was the wallpaper of my life," he says, a clever way of saying that while it was all around him as a teenager growing up adjacent to the rock and roll epicentre of Sunset Boulevard, he wasn't necessarily paying attention to it.

The first concert Shankman ever attended, in fact, was The Cramps at the Roxy. ("The lead singer did things I'm still afraid to do... to myself.") That's a far cry from the Bon Jovi/Foreigner/REO Speedwagon playlist of Rock of Ages, a "jukebox musical" that proved to be a bona fide smash when it opened on Broadway in 2009.

Yet Shankman, 47, proved himself as the ideal director for the film version, which stars Tom Cruise as a perpetually stoned rock god opposite newcomers Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta as young lovers attempting to make it in the Hollywood rock music scene.

For one thing, Shankman helmed the 2007 movie musical version of Hairspray, a film that likewise served up a specific portrait of a time and place (Baltimore in 1962) with musical-comedy flair. For another, his father was a Hollywood music manager, whose clients ranged from Barry White to X, so he was familiar with the behind-the-scenes showbiz milieu in which the musical was set.

"I lived right off Sunset. My dad's office was at 9200. I lived at Tower Records," he says, referring to the legendary record store on the corner of Sunset and Horn Ave.

Where the conflict of Hairspray centred on the battle for integration on a segregated dance show, Rock of Ages recreates the censorious activities of religious groups wanting to clean up the "Satanic" milieu of rock 'n' roll.

Hence, Shankman himself devised the villain, not seen in the Broadway version, in the person of Catherine Zeta-Jones's Patricia Whitmore, an anti-rock music crusader in the mould of Tipper Gore, but with a more contemporary inspiration. Even if the movie takes place in 1987, Shankman says he needed emotionally something that was going on now.

"When I came up with that character, there was a certain woman who was potentially going to run for office who was on TV a lot and thought she could change gays," says Shankman, who is himself openly gay.

So, yes, any resemblance between Patricia Whitmore and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is entirely not coincidental.

Shankman says that if he is unafraid to leave a personal stamp on his films, he learned it from "a mentor of mine who is, oddly, John Waters," referring to the filmmaker who created the original film version of Hairspray in 1988.

"John said to me when I got Hairspray, 'Do not try to do mine. Do not try to do the Broadway show. Do it your way. You have to tell it your way, because if you don't, it will all go to hell.'

"And so he kind of gave me the courage and the strength to say: It doesn't matter what I change. The audience will stay with me if I make a good movie."

One thing Shankman did not change, by the way, was the interior of the Sunset Records store, which is reproduced for the Miami-shot film with uncanny accuracy, despite the fact the original store has been closed since 2006.

"I cried when I walked into that place, because it looked so much like Tower," he says. "And then I cried a little bit more because one of the walls wasn't finished."

Rock of Ages opens in theatres on Friday.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 G6

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