Rock Star is about a dreamer who’s punished by having his dreams come true. It’s a repressive idea that only a puritan could take to heart, but the movie mostly uses it to give direction to its grab-bag of energetic scenes. Rock Star is a quirky, raucous, and mostly winning film, and at its center is Mark Wahlberg’s joyous performance as an innocent whose wildest fantasy becomes a reality.
Chris Cole (Wahlberg) repairs Xerox machines by day, but his life revolves around the big-time heavy-metal act Steel Dragon. Chris and his friends have formed Blood Pollution, a tribute band that plays painstaking recreations of Steel Dragon’s repertoire in the local Pittsburgh nightclubs, and Chris has absorbed everything there is to know about his heroes, especially Steel Dragon lead singer Bobby Beers. Chris’ obsession is so strong that even in choir practice he can’t help but close out a hymn with one of Beers’ trademark tomcat yowls.
But times are changing even as Chris stays the same. His pals have outgrown the preoccupation that brought them together, and his girlfriend-manager Emily (a self-effacing but only sporadically effective Jennifer Aniston) wants him to start writing and performing his own material. His bandmates, having finally had enough, kick Chris out of the band, but he barely has time to be depressed before a call comes through from Steel Dragon guitarist Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West). Like Chris, Bobby Beers has had a personality meltdown that’s gotten him booted out of his band, and now Steel Dragon, needing a replacement who knows all their songs, is bringing in every Beers wannabe for a tryout.
Director Stephen Herek handles to perfection scenes like the one in which an awestruck Chris and Emily marvel over the Steel Dragon memorabilia—the gaudy costumes and storied guitars—residing under glass in Cuddy’s museum-like mansion. Having won the job, Chris (renamed “Izzy” for PR purposes) learns the ins and outs of being a rock-star in a giddy series of scenes climaxing in the debut concert where he has to silence his doubters. A near disaster nearly knocks him out of the band before the concert is even underway, but once he takes the stage, he absolutely electrifies the audience with his screeching, ferocious delivery, then pauses in mid-song to pointedly flip off some fans holding up a “Bring Back Bobby” banner. “Izzy” arrives on the mountain of fame in a delirious rush.
John Stockwell’s script is full of delightful sidelights, such as Chris’ parents who enjoy his music as much as any of his fans, or the parking-lot rhubarb that breaks out between two identically-clad tribute bands. Whenever the movie grows too wholesome, it instinctively tilts back towards raunchiness, as when Emily pierces one of Chris’ nipples in a genuinely sexy scene, or the post-concert party that slip-slides into an orgy. Yet Rock Star never tries to clobber us with how out-there the heavy-metal scene is, and unlike Almost Famous it doesn’t shy away whenever the band takes the stage: Steel Dragon is given enough time to perform several full-length songs. (Wahlberg and the other cast members performed the numbers at an AIDS benefit in L.A.)
Rise-and-fall movies usually peak at the halfway point, just as the comedy of the hero’s early struggles (which probably make up the least funny part of any successful person’s life) culminate in stardom, stranding us for a final “serious” hour in which his life falls apart piece by tawdry piece. (Boogie Nights is a prime culprit.) Rock Star delays Izzy’s dissolution as late as possible, and then it only sketches it in. We aren’t forced to watch him puke or turn into an arrogant monster; nobody has to crack up or OD before he sees the light. That debut concert has its bookend in one final concert, another perfectly staged affair that turns on the poignancy of a shrieking, adoring rock fan.
Rock Star paints a convincing picture of the hard-rock scene without trying to snow us into thinking that we’re also getting the Zeitgeist of a bygone era. (It’s set in the ’80s.) It conveys the same nostalgia for our youth that Almost Famous did, but it’s a purer, far more honest movie whose groupies aren’t self-controlled nymphets, but a pack of prematurely aging “wives and girlfriends” who passively accept whatever bones the boys toss out to them. Stylistically it’s a timid film compared to This is Spinal Tap, which cast off its moorings and had the nerve to not be about anything. Rock Star’s closing scenes belong to a much lesser movie, a simpleminded morality play whose simpleminded moral is Be Yourself. But before it gets there, it caroms around with color and verve, offering up both horselaughs and shivers of recognition. It’s hard to resist.
– Tom Block