Mark Wahlberg, who probed the zeitgeist of America’s ’70s porn culture in “Boogie Nights,” dips into the time capsule again for “Rock Star.” The decade this time is the ’80s, and the subculture is heavy metal in all its big-haired squeaky leather-panted grandeur.
It’s also another local-boy-makes-good tale, with Pittsburgh boy Chris Cole ponytailed copy machine repairman by day, shaggy frontman for Blood Pollution, a “tribute” band to the mega-metal English band Steel Dragon, by night. The worshipful Cole makes sure every guitar squeal and every high note adhere to the gospel laid down by his metal gods. “That sounds like a ping, not a squeal,” Cole says to one of the guitarists during a rehearsal, waving a pre-Sony tape recorder as if to cast out the demons of blasphemy. One concert ends in an on-stage fistfight when Rob (Timothy Olyphant) deviates from the program for a solo guitar riff.
Inevitably, his irked bandmates boot him out for his “mental” zealotry. It gets rewarded, however, in the form of a phone call from Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West), Steel Dragon guitarist, songwriter and second-in-command. It turns out that the band’s lead singer Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng) has similarly been given the prima-donna boot, so with “manager” and longtime girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston) in tow, Cole plunges into a delirious world of drugs, orgies, implants and all the other sweaty excesses of ’80s heavy metal.
The tale is inspired by the true-life metamorphosis of Judas Priest singer Tim Owens, who had headed tribute band British Steel before he leaped behind the microphone after Rob Halford left. Yes, “Rock Star” is fairly predictable; you can guess the next plot twist as easily as the words of a new song on a Top 40 radio station. The message is driven home early and often: His cop brother chides Cole at the family breakfast table (and their parents for encouraging it) for not getting his own life; the supportive Emily encourages him to write songs like he did for her 15th birthday; his best friend Rob would rather sing his own bad songs than be a perpetual “cover” boy. Most of all, when the Steel Dragon manager tells Cole “Your job is to live the fantasy other people dream about,” we all know the Hollywood message will be about someone else’s dreams becoming your work.
Then again, people often insist on going down predictable paths, and “Rock Star” is more about telling fairy tales than being a cautionary tale of the temptations of rock ‘n’ roll. Besides, given the dismal year 2001 has turned out to be for films, at least the movie funnels energy and laughs before it takes its soft-core tour of the music world. You’ll have to tune into VH1’s “Behind the Music” for grittier stuff, but be prepared to laugh at scenes such as Cole practicing his English accent (he has to go under the moniker of Izzy) and new tough-guy rocker persona in front of the mirror.
Besides, for all his early days as the bad boy with clean underwear, Wahlberg has yet to play anything but the porn actor/convict/
assassin/soldier/rock star with a heart of gold. Aniston, as the faithful girl, plays one note, although she does play that one note well.
Jibes at the ’80s range from rock stars coming out of the closet to the canned concert patter. Part of the moviegoing game is playing a rocker who’s who: The Dragons include the likes of drummer Jason Bonham (who’s the son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham), and even Blood Pollution is stocked with real musicians, including Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark (bass player) and Slaughter drummer Blas Elias. In one of the funniest bits of casting, Third Eye Blind lead singer and songwriter Stephan Jenkins plays the frontman for a rival cover band who gets into a brawl over Steel Dragon trivia.
All the music is original, from Walhberg’s pipes to tunes written by hired hands such as Sammy Hagar, Vander Ark and Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson. But rest assured, the heavy metal has been girded with 21st-century sensibilities so as not to conflict with the rest of the ’80s Top 40 modern-rock soundtrack.
Definitely stay for the hilarious mix of real and manufactured “outtakes,” which rivals the ones in “There’s Something About Mary” and any Jackie Chan movie. If you don’t leave “Rock Star” wanting to do some head-banging and squealing at the top of your lungs, well, you can always pop in an old Air Supply cassette.