If you weren’t there—meaning young in the mid-1980s—it’s hard to grasp why everyone wasn’t laughing themselves hoarse over the “hair metal” band era portrayed in Rock Star. Most of them looked ridiculous; even more of them sounded ridiculous. Ratt, Poison, Trixter, Dokken … who could tell them apart, much less explain why anyone listened to them?
What parents of the generation before and kids of the generation that followed have failed to grasp is that the ’80s metal craze was always about fantasy. It reduced to its hormonal essence the idea that has driven rock idolatry for 40 years: You could make a damned good living playing guitar and getting laid nightly. Van Halen, Kiss, Mötley Crüe and the like churned out songs about girls and parties, inspiring a generation of air guitarists to imagine life in their heroes’ platform shoes.
Rock Star does one huge thing right in the middle of doing lots of little things wrong—it understands the primal appeal that fantasy held. John Stockwell’s script is based loosely on the story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, an Akron, Ohio, singer for a Judas Priest tribute band who was tapped in 1997 to replace the band’s original singer, Rob Halford. In Rock Star, Owens becomes Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg), frontman for the band Blood Pollution, which is devoted to fictional rock superstars Steel Dragon.
For Chris, the band isn’t really about music; it’s about mimicry. When Blood Pollution’s guitarist Rob (Timothy Olyphant) misses a lick in the middle of rehearsal, Chris stops to play back the Steel Dragon tape to demonstrate what Rob needs to duplicate. When Steel Dragon singer Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng) gets his nipple pierced, Chris bravely follows suit (in a “please don’t try this at home, and consider looking away from the screen” scene). Any variation from the performances and personas of Steel Dragon risks pulling Chris out of his illusion—that he’s the real Bobby Beers, up there on stage in front of 10,000 screaming fans instead of a few hundred rowdies at his dad’s steel mill.
Rock Star is at its friskiest and most fun in the early scenes that capture Chris in his pre-fame working class life. The film avoids some of the easiest, most stereotypical points of conflict, giving Chris parents who show up at his gigs and help sell T-shirts instead of yelling at him to get a haircut. There’s a hilarious showdown in an arena parking lot between the Blood Pollution members and a rival Steel Dragon tribute band, and any number of throwaway gags targeting everything from ’80s porn films (Das Bootie and All That Jizz are featured on a theater marquee) to adult sibling rivalry. In an ironic twist for a story about artistic hangers-on, veteran hack-for-hire Stephen Herek (The Mighty Ducks, Mr. Holland’s Opus, 101 Dalmatians) directs a film with wit and a distinctive style for perhaps the first time in his career.
Then Chris gets his big break—invited by Steel Dragon to become the new lead singer when Bobby Beers is fired—and Rock Star starts to lose a lot of its momentum. A big part of the problem is the emphasis on the relationship between Chris and long-time supportive girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston). Predictably, Chris finds himself seduced by the perpetual party of life in a rock band; just as predictably, he and Emily drift apart when she becomes just another part of the road entourage. An average Joe turned instant icon finds his head turned by fast cars and faster women—whoa, didn’t see that comin’.
What’s missing from the latter stages of Rock Star is a keen interest in what’s going on in Chris’s head. Rock Star never seems tuned in to how deeply Chris has submerged himself in his persona—the notion that he’s spending his whole life now playing a part, complete with a manufactured name and now-you-hear-it, now-you-don’t British accent. Wahlberg gets a great moment during Chris’s first Steel Dragon photo shoot where he finds it impossible to bury a smile, but the film gets fuzzier about exploring that fantasy the more it dwells on the hometown honey that got away and hand-wringing over whether Chris is a “real artist.”
Fortunately, Rock Star’s affectionate re-creation of its time and place keeps the film planted squarely in a world of absurd excesses. With real-life rockers like Jason Bonham and Zakk Wylde among the cast members, there’s a guaranteed sense of authenticity to the debauchery (even when it traffics in cheap gags about blurry gender and sexual orientation lines). Ditto the verisimilitude of the original Steel Dragon songs penned by the likes of Sammy Hagar, fist-raising rock anthems with titles like “Stand Up.” While any pokes at metal in the post-Spinal Tap world may seem like sloppy seconds, there’s more than enough energy and charm in Rock Star’s flashback perspective to keep the film buoyant.
I suspect Rock Star will appeal most to those who remember the hair metal era—and the 1980s tunes like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” that dot the soundtrack—with a mixture of warmth and embarrassment. There may be a little more drama to the story of what happens when a rock & roll fantasy comes true, but Rock Star still finds some truth by keeping it light. Consider it a little valentine to everyone who ever stood in front of a mirror in tight leather pants, playing a packed house with a hairbrush for a microphone.
Rock Star (R) **1/2 Directed by Stephen Herek. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston and Dominic West.