From Spinal Tap to Beavis & Butt-head to the cavalcade of follies that is Mötley Crüe: Behind the Music, few cultures have proved such a bottomless source of mirth as heavy metal. The Wagnerian hubris, slapstick backstage excess, and joyous, tongue-wagging idiocy of the fans have always rewarded even the most clinical examinations (like the cult doc Heavy Metal Parking Lot). And in our age of head-shaving, latrine-trashing rage-rock, there’s a certain winsomeness to the whole hair-tossing spectacle that once ruled MTV, appealing to some common nostalgie de la mousse.
So a comedy like Rock Star is probably long overdue. Set squarely in the middle of the Whitesnake Administration (1985), this heavy-metal epic with a soft-rock heart follows the life of a Pennsylvania rock singer (Mark Wahlberg in extensions) who fronts a tribute band to fictive metal legends Steel Dragon. Gifted with a robust voice and fetishistic attention to detail, young Chris Cole has shaped himself and his band mates into a flawless simulacrum of their British heroes — worrying every guitar lick and lapel ornament to perfection and becoming low-rent heroes for the blue-collar rock community. Soon, though, Cole’s slave-driving anal-retentiveness gets him ejected from the band. And then comes a call from Olympus. In what screenwriter John Stockwell has called a “Horatio Alger in leather” story, Cole is chosen to replace the singer of Steel Dragon itself.
With the focus on sweet-natured hottie Wahlberg, a familiar Boogie Nights trajectory soon locks firmly into place. Instead of a 13-inch priapic talent, it is Cole’s golden larynx — a sort of heavy-metal composite that blends Axl Rose with Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and is credited to four different vocalists — that propels our starry-eyed newcomer into a world of unforeseen pitfalls and temptations. A visit to the band’s Beverly Hills nerve center reveals a sleek professionalism behind the heavy-metal monster, along with a few surprises. The spandexed peacock of a frontman is gay; the bassist requires regular
blood transfusions; and, most shockingly, not everyone in the world of Eighties hair-metal is nice.
Since director Stephen Herek’s résumé includes Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, he would seem to have pretty sound bona fides for taking on air-guitar subculture. Screenwriter Stockwell visited metal festivals and had in-depth consultations with the braintrust of Pantera. The producers enlisted members of Slaughter and Dokken as actors and the mighty Sammy Hagar as songwriter. The press kit devotes an entire paragraph to the film’s hair wranglers. But like Almost Famous before it, Rock Star suffers from a terminal wholesomeness that sits discomfitingly in its milieu, particularly the unreconstructed, spandex-and-silicone vintage depicted here. Post-gig orgies proceed gently to the siren songs of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and INXS, with hints of drinking and perhaps some coke, then fade into morning-after sheepishness and proclamations of renewed fidelity. The film sorely needs someone to vomit, o.d., or abuse a groupie or two, just as a gesture toward verisimilitude.
The film is front-loaded with plenty of funny, authentic-feeling snapshots from the life of an earnest steel-belt metalhead, as he fixes copy machines, bitches at guitarists for missed notes, and steadfastly refuses to write his own music. “Then I’ll just be another clown with a guitar trying to get someone to pay attention to me,” he complains. But once Cole enters the major leagues of glamour and vice, his dissatisfaction with living the dream feels obligatory and rushed. What began as a fresh ode to the world’s interpreters becomes a hackneyed search-for-one’s-own-voice narrative, ending in a laughable denouement that has Cole happily settled in Seattle, with Kurt Cobain unwashed hair and thrift store V-neck, singing his own songs in a coffee bar, poised to ride the next rock revolution into the sunset. (It’s here that the unlikely casting of NBC’s sweetheart of the Nineties Jennifer Aniston — as Cole’s devoted, leather-clad girlfriend/manager — makes a grim sort of sense. Leaving the Steel Dragon tour over Cole’s groupies and growing disengagement she heads to Seattle to start a company. Their closing-scene reunion in her thriving coffeehouse inescapably implies that she founded Starbucks.)
“Your job is to live the fantasy other people dream about,” Steel Dragon’s grizzled bassist tells Cole. The film ‘s greatest moments illustrate that process, with the real money shot being Cole’s first step onto Steel Dragon’s arena stage: a druggy, gloriously vertiginous ride up a hydraulic riser and onto a platform overlooking an absolute ocean of screaming fans. Other pleasures dot the film, including a few nice meta-narrative in-jokes about celebrity role-playing. One is the casting of current rock star Stephan Jenkins, from Third Eye Blind, as the spoiled, under-talented singer of a rival tribute band. Another is a more elegant musical comment about fluctuating star identity that comes over the closing credits. That’s when the frisky early-Nineties house-music track “Good Vibrations ” plays, gleefully rapped by a starry-eyed 20-year-old underwear model by the name of Marky Mark.