There’s a spattering of irony in the nostalgic “Rock Star,” a 1985 look at the world of heavy metal and the people who orbit it. To be honest, I was never a metal-head. I was one of those squares who liked to hear the music and understand the lyrics.
In high school, while my friends were banging their heads to “Black Sabbath” I was grooving to “The Eagles.”
The irony is, despite our musical tastes and differences, we found ourselves acting out as leader of the band behind locked bedroom doors. After all, who among us hasn’t dreamed of being a rock and roll star? The lights. The glamour. The fame. Most of all, the adulation of fans who will do anything to make your every whim come true.
Rock and roll, the music apple from the tree of temptation, decried by the “I Like Ike” generation as the root of all evil. Okay, so they were right, but who wouldn’t trade in their humdrum daily grind for a chance to front their favorite band?
Not Xerox repairman Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg), who toils with machines by day and fronts a tribute band of his favorite metal group Steel Dragon by night. Cole lives and breathes Steel Dragon, a fact not lost on his band mates and girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston). When Cole fronts Blood Pollution, he becomes Steel Dragon lead singer Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng), right down to the patented stage moves and distinctive vocals.
When Cole’s band mates decide to pursue their own voice and musical direction, they dump him. Cole’s devastation of being kicked out of the band that he started is quickly forgotten when he is offered the chance of a lifetime. Fed up with Beers’ antics, Steel Dragon is looking for a replacement. They’ve heard good things about Cole, and want him to audition.
If “Rock Star ” wasn’t based on fact, all of this would seem preposterous. Yet it did happen. When Judas Priest went looking for a replacement for lead singer Ron Halford in 1996, they picked an office supply salesman from Ohio. So instead of becoming another eye-rolling moment, Cole’s good fortune is cause for celebration.
Set in 1985, when Heavy Metal groups had names as outrageous as their hair, “Rock Star” is a celebration of music, wish fulfillment and growing up. It’s a semi-satiric cautionary tale of a lost generation and how one man tries to find himself through music. Unfortunately, thanks to an obvious script by John Stockwell, Cole’s trip is filled with obvious pit stops. Stockwell wisely sets the film in the still hopeful 1980′s instead of the cynical 1990′s. Heavy Metal was at its peak in 1985, a period ripe for observation and satire. Stockwell’s script isn’t up to the challenge. Unlike Cameron Crowe’s personal and detailed script for “Almost Famous,” “Rock Star” plays like one of those one-hour Arts & Entertainment biographies where time is of the essence so they only touch down on familiar territory.
After Cole is picked to replace Beers, his experiences on the road include the usual tour obstacles like sex and drugs, all presented with the efficiency of an MTV After School Special. Wahlberg is so engaging as Cole that we find ourselves willing to ride his emotional teeter-totter. Will he be true to girlfriend, or will he be seduced by the freedom of the road? Will he find happiness as a gun-for-hire or will he pursue his own vision?
The conflicts of “Rock Star” are as thin as the leather pants worn by Wahlberg, which are more revealing than anything in Stockwell’s screenplay. Hiding underneath a wild flock of hair extensions, Wahlberg, a former rapper, shows immense presence on stage and off. His performance is an extension of “Dirk Diggler” from “Boogie Nights,” someone passionate yet not too bright.
Cole gets kicked out of Blood Pollution because he refuses to abandon the Steel Dragon repertoire, yet once he becomes a member of Steel Dragon, all he dreams about is performing his own music. Honest irony, something the rest of the film lacks.
Aniston is okay as Emily, but her character is so poorly written that she has no where to go with it. She is Cole’s Rock of Gibraltar, a one note character who never gets a chance to sing.
“Rock Star” really comes alive during the concert scenes, suggesting the film should have been about a boy and his band and not a boy and his girl. Director Stephen Herek infuses the concert scenes with electricity by fleshing out both Steel Dragon and Blood Pollution with real rock and rollers. Seeing is believing, and when these guys hit the stage, you totally buy into the illusion.
It’s only when the characters have to relate to each that the illusion is broken. Except for “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” most of the characters in director Stephen Herek’s films don’t talk to each other but at each other. The characters in “Rock Star” never connect, which makes the emotional payoff weak and superficial.
The sad part is that we want all of this to work. Cole is each and every one of us who has ever dared to dream of the impossible. It may too late for us, so we pin our hopes on Cole. That’s why it is so frustrating when the filmmakers take the easy way out.
If this were just a cinematic fantasy, that would be okay. It’s not. It’s based on true events, a reality that was probably much more interesting and complex than anything in this film.
ROCK & ROLL FANTASYCaught between a Rock Star and a hard place
Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Flemyng, Timothy Olyphant, Timothy Spall, Dominic West. Directed by Stephen Herek. Rated R.
LARSEN RATING: $3.00