A year after Cameron Crowe climbed back aboard the tour bus for one last spin through rock’s golden days of giddy hedonism and phony heroism comes a film set a decade later, in the mid-1980s, when the parties got harder, the music louder and the musicians prettier. The world of Rock Star is one Crowe’s young stand-in from Almost Famous, William, would probably flee in terror and pity; his golden gods have been replaced by makeup-wearing, chain-mail-sporting cock-rock clowns. They’re poster boys for leather and mascara, musicians with the grand aspirations of platinum and poontang, a groupie in one hand and a vial of blow in the other. They’re dispensable.
Ask singer Rob Halford, who left Judas Priest at the beginning of the 1990s to be replaced by an Ohio kid who once dreamed of being Rob Halford. Rock Star, then, is — and isn’t — the story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, the Akron office-supply salesman who went from fronting a Judas Priest tribute band (never say cover band) to fronting Priest, a fantasy made tangible with a single phone call. Owens’ tale, recounted in a July 1997 New York Times piece, comes complete with the happiest of leather-clad endings. After replacing Halford, Owens went on tour with Priest, recorded two albums as the group’s lead singer (including the just-released Demolition) and was recently married — a fairy tale for the Metal Edge crowd, down to Owens’ insistence upon staying in Akron and hanging with his old pals at the local chicken-wing eatery. That regular-guy routine is part of Owens’ allure: He is the audience’s surrogate, the one fan lucky enough to live the daydream.
Rock Star tells the same story — the exact same story — until it ransacks the grab bag of rock and roll clichés for its second half. Writer John Stockwell changes names (Tim “Ripper” Owens becomes Chris “Izzy” Cole, played by reformed rapper Mark Wahlberg), settings (Akron becomes Pittsburgh), genres (Priest’s metal edge has been dulled to sound more like Poison or Warrant) and eras (the mid-’90s give way to the mid-’80s, during hair-metal’s ascendancy rather than its demise), but stays mostly faithful to the fable: Chris sells office supplies and fronts a tribute band that mimics, down to every last sustained note and squeal, his idols (a hair band named Steel Dragon made up of real musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham). Thanks to a videotape made by two groupies, Chris is invited to front the band when Dragon’s lead singer, Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng) is ousted after being outed, a reference to Halford’s coming out of the closet in 1995.
For a while, Rock Star lets us in on the thrill. When invited to Steel Dragon’s mansion for an audition, Chris and his faithful girlfriend-manager, Emily (Jennifer Aniston), can’t make it through the hallway without ogling the guitars and platinum albums that adorn the walls and trophy cases. He’s Alice in heavy-metal wonderland, and he can’t stop grinning into the looking glass.
But Stockwell and director Stephen Herek (responsible for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the ultimate dope-rock fantasy) aren’t content with letting Chris live out the dream, which is why Owens has voiced his displeasure with Rock Star. They haul out the groupies and orgies and booze and blow like dressing-room caterers. The movie portrays Chris as a naïf so bereft of probity and personality he destroys the dream just as he begins to live it. He’s a fool who believes he’s the band and not just some singer-for-hire, and the movie sets about tearing him down before it ever builds him up. It revels in his humiliation.
It’s as though Herek and Stockwell felt that in order to make a serious rock movie, they had to capitulate to the genre’s worst excesses. So we’re treated to countless scenes of dance-floor orgies (complete with chicks with dicks), backstage “pussy passes,” drug binges, trashed hotel rooms and blood transfusions. Rock Star takes itself so seriously it becomes full-on parody — This Is Spinal Tap as a sanctimonious cautionary tale. And how rock ‘n’ roll is that?