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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Rock Star (review)

Hello, Cleveland!

Much more than mere forced thematic pairing unites my two new films this week, Rock Star and The Musketeer. Rock Star‘s director, Stephen Herek, also directed 1993’s The Three Musketeers, which is rather prominently and somewhat derisively mentioned in my review of The Musketeer. Tim Roth, who appears in The Musketeer, was onscreen earlier this summer with Rock Star‘s Mark Wahlberg, in Planet of the Apes.

But the real, er, kick in the pants is this: Wahlberg and The Musketeer‘s Justin Chambers are not only both former Calvin Klein models, but both appear to enjoy, um, handling their equipment in public. It’s as good a way as any for a guy to make a living, I guess, even if what’s meant to be sexy is actually hilariously cheesy, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone said, Let’s get these weener-boys in a movie!


The difference between Chambers and Wahlberg, though, is that Wahlberg at least demonstrated some creative tendencies prior to his underwear stint — you know, with the whole hip-hop thing, which, even if you’re not a particular fan of the music, you have to admit requires some showmanship. While Chambers seems to think he is Master Thespian merely by dint of having formerly grabbed his crotch for CK, Wahlberg appears to recognize his limitations (Planet of the Apes notwithstanding), and here he is back to what he does best here: playing an ordinary, working-class guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

Chris Coles (Wahlberg: The Perfect Storm) is a mild-mannered denizen of a cube farm by day, and the frontman for Blood Pollution — a Steel Dragon tribute band — by night. It’s Pittsburgh in the 80s, heavy metal is king, and Steel Dragon reigns. But when the Dragon’s singer, Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng: Snatch), defects, the rest of the band, led by guitarist Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West: A Midsummer Night’s Dream), zoom right in on Chris — whom they spotted in a video of a BP concert — as a replacement.

Rock Star was inspired by the true story of Ripper Owens, a Judas Priest tribute-band singer who eventually replaced the band’s frontman. Written by John Stockwell, it’s a fairly standard rock ‘n’ roll, rise ‘n’ fall story, a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming fantasy that turns into one rather naive young man’s attempt to make it alive out of the neverending orgy of sex and drugs and hedonism that being a rock star entails. As such, it embraces many clichés of the genre — will Chris’s relationship with his smart, savvy metal-chick girlfriend, Emily (an unrecognizable, and terrific, Jennifer Aniston: Office Space), survive his fame? — but it avoids some of them, too, and in such a way that makes Rock Star a surprisingly delightful little movie, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than the wish-fulfillment fantasy it is but also one that doesn’t avoid the “be careful what you wish for” side of the coin, either.

“Unlike my metal colleague
Derek Smalls, I do not require
a foiled-wrapped cucumber.”

Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t rebellion here — one of the hoary conventions Rock Star avoids. Chris’s parents are extremely, and amusingly, supportive of their boy and his music; “you look nice,” one of his mom’s friends tell Chris, as he is heading out to a gig in full makeup and clad in leather head to toe. And Chris’s sheer joy is infectious — watch how he can’t keep the huge grin off his face during his first photo shoot as an actual, honest-to-Ozzy member of Steel Dragon. Under all the mascara and nipple rings and long hair, Rock Star is a genuinely sweet film about the unadulterated dorkiness of being a devoted fan — Chris is almost like those gentle, unassuming aliens in Galaxy Quest who modeled their entire culture after a cheesy human TV show. Chris lives and breathes Steel Dragon, even merely as a member of a tribute band: Is he a little touched in the head or just seriously dedicated? Sure, he’s piggy-backing on someone else’s fantasy — he wants to be Bobby Beers, though even the real Beers isn’t who Chris thinks he is, as Chris discovers — but it’s the path Chris has to take to find out what his own dreams are, and where they could take him. Following your bliss is a wonderful thing, but not all of us can know what our bliss is until we stumble around in the dark for a while, grabbing blindly for it.

Unaffected and thoroughly charming, Rock Star is, as Chris’s mom’s friend might say, a nice movie. And the soundtrack kicks ass… nicely. I’m sure I’d never have imagined, back in the 80s, that heavy metal would ever be called nice, but there we are. I’m turning into an old fogey, and the music of my high-school years is showing up not only on the classic rock station but on the oldies station. And it’s nice.

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MPAA: rated R for language, sexuality and some drug content

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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