Rock Star

USA, 2001. Rated R. 110 minutes.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Dominic West, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Flemyng, Timothy Spall, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jason Bonham, Stephan Jenkins, Zakk Wylde, Brian Vander Ark, Jeff Pilson, Blas Elias, Nick Catanese, Rachel Hunter
Writer: John Stockwell
Music: Trevor Rabin (score) and various artists (songs), including Brian Vander Ark
Cinematographer: Ueli Steiger
Producer: Toby Jaffe, Robert Lawrence
Director: Stephen Herek


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

E very teenaged boy has the same fantasy. To be a rock star. To be the front man--or maybe the lead guitarist--for his favorite rock band. To be envied and desired by everyone. To walk out onstage as the lights come up and the cheering swells to a roar. What boy hasn't pretended to sing or played air guitar in front of the mirror dreaming of that moment?

Chris Coles (Mark Wahlberg) has never grown out of that fantasy. The time is the heyday of heavy metal and hair bands, the mid-1980s, and the object of his adulation is a veteran British band called Steel Dragon. Copying the look of Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng from Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels), Steel Dragon's lead singer, right down to the mascara, lip gloss, and nipple ring, Chris sings in a Steel Dragon cover band--er, "tribute" band--called Blood Pollution. Chris takes his obsession so seriously that he brawls with competing "tribute" bands in parking lots and fights with band mates who don't play the songs exactly as written. It's all too much for his friends, who want to branch out with original material. Chris is out.
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But then the Phone Call comes. It appears Steel Dragon was firing Bobby Beers at the same time Blood Pollution was giving Chris the boot. Thanks to a pair of groupies from Chris's hometown, the remaining members of Steel Dragon see a video of a Blood Pollution show, and Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West), one of Steel Dragon's two guitarists, wants Chris to audition for the vacancy. With girlfriend/manager Emily (Jennifer Aniston) in tow, he knocks them dead, and reinvents himself as "Izzy." The rest is heavy metal history.

Actually, the story really is heavy metal history. The movie is inspired by the true story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, an office supply salesman from Ohio, who replaced Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford in 1996 after the band watched a video of Owens performing in a Judas Priest cover band. Understandably, writer John Stockwell chose not to set the story in the mid-1990s, by which time only Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne had survived as multiplatinum metal acts. Instead, Rock Star shows heavy metal at its apex, in 1985, and even though the movie is not about Judas Priest, Steel Dragon is similar to Judas Priest in many ways. Like the hard-edged Priest, Steel Dragon is envisioned as one of the most influential heavy metal bands of the late '70s and early '80s. But by the mid-'80s, despite continuing to play to sold-out arenas, Steel Dragon is struggling to stay relevant and maintain popularity in the face of lighter, more pop-oriented metal acts like Bon Jovi, Poison, and Whitesnake. By the end of the decade, of course, the entire movement was in decline, and Rock Star acknowledges this with a nod to the birth of "grunge" in Seattle.

Director Stephen Herek went to great lengths to make sure that the rock and roll is believable. He used as few actors as possible, and he insisted that the actors he did hire be able to play their instruments. Wahlberg on stageThe erstwhile Marky Mark, Wahlberg is certainly a credible stage performer. Because the Funky Bunch was not exactly a metal act, Wahlberg took six months of vocal lessons, and though his voice is reportedly "augmented," he did do his own singing. Other than Wahlberg, Flemyng, and West, Steel Dragon is portrayed by real-life musicians. They include respected drummer Jason Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson, and guitar wizard Zakk Wylde, once with Ozzy Osbourne and now with Black Label Society. Herek staged a real-life concert with these guys in Los Angeles to shoot the film's concert scenes.

Similarly, apart from Wahlberg and Timothy Olyphant (as the guitarist with whom Chris fights), Blood Pollution also consists of musicians. Brian Vander Ark, lead singer and songwriter of The Verve Pipe, is Blood Pollution's bass player. Blas Elias of Slaughter plays the drummer, and guitarist Nick Catanese, of Black Label Society, plays Blood Pollution's second guitarist. Third Eye Blind lead singer and songwriter Stephan Jenkins also appears as the leader of rival Steel Dragon "tribute" band Black Babylon.

Wahlberg is a good choice beyond his abilities as a performer. Not projecting a great deal of intelligence onscreen, he's miscast in strong, charismatic roles (like the hero in Planet of the Apes), but he is perfect for sympathetic, not-too-bright guys pulled along by events larger than themselves--guys like Chris, who is easily seduced by Steel Dragon's drug-hazed world of non-stop partying, indiscriminate sex, and trashed hotel rooms. Emily, however, is a tougher sell, and that's the basis of one of Rock Star's two key conflicts. The other involves whether Chris is a full-fledged member of the band or just a hired hand.

Rock Star is billed as a comedy, but it's not a comedy in the conventional sense that there are jokes or farcical situations. Rather, Rock Star is a light satire that pokes fun at heavy metal while also taking it seriously as a genre of music that was, at least for a time, hugely popular. The result is a slightly outrageous universe that nevertheless feels grounded in reality. Indeed, some of the musicians cast in the film have commented that the wholesale debauchery portrayed in Rock Star hits a little too close to home.

There is no question that Rock Star owes a big debt to Almost Famous. Both films are essentially about a young ingénue who goes on the road, where he is initiated into the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Almost Famous is undoubtedly a better film, but it did take itself a little too seriously, possibly because it was told through the nostalgic filter of Cameron Crowe's own memories. Rock Star has fewer pretensions, with no metaphysical babble from an angelic, golden-haired supporting character who supposedly represents the muse of the band and the soul of the music. Rock Star is what it is.

If anything, Rock Star demystifies that which Almost Famous celebrated, though without wagging a finger…at least initially. As Rock Star adopts a more moralistic tone in its second half, it loses steam, eventually just grinding to a halt. Rock Star unfortunately doesn't have the heart that allowed Almost Famous to excel, and takes the easy narrative road. That's not deadly, however, because moral lessons are not the reason to see the movie. Rock Star does an outstanding job of capturing a particular time and place, with an instinct for both the sublime and the ridiculous about an exceedingly odd period in rock history.

Review © August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Warner Bros.

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