Rock stardom is a standard personal fantasy. It represents two very elusive elements - the power that music has over all of us and the godlike fixation we have on those who make it. The notion of moving the masses in such a way, to produce the beautiful noise that brings sense and sensibility together, remains a wonderful daydream of wanton wish fulfillment. So when a movie proposes to take on said topic, to show how a fleeting glimpse of recognition ruins a man’s life, it should have a relatively easy time of getting our already primed attention. Sadly, The Rocker is so rife with formula that a pre-school could wet nurse on it indefinitely and still never go hungry.
Just as his ‘80s hair band, Vesuvius, is poised to hit the big time, flamboyant drummer Robert “Fish” Fishman is unceremoniously fired. Twenty years later, his former group is headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while he’s living like a load in his sister’s attic. One day, his nephew Matt comes to him with a problem. Seems the drummer for his high school combo has been grounded by his mom, and the trio needs a fourth to play the prom. Reluctantly, Fish agrees to fill in. Soon, he’s back to his previously debauched ways, including practicing nude over a network hook-up.
Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad, Will Arnett, Emma Stone
(Fox Atomic; US theatrical: 20 Aug 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 Aug 2008 (General release); 2008)
A clip of said ‘performance’ winds up on YouTube, and before they know it, ADD (Matt’s group) is a web hit. Soon, record companies are courting them, offering record deals and the chance to tour. But popularity causes concern for leader/songwriter Curtis, his mom Kim, and all the other parents - especially when Fish thinks its time for a return to the days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It will take some tough love to make sure the band doesn’t implode before it has a chance at any kind of lasting fame.
The Rocker is built on so many movie musical clichés that the rock and roll backdrop ends up appearing like a creative con. This is really nothing more than 42nd Street with Dio’s devil horns, the standard narrative pipe dream fashioned into a harbinger of happiness and headbanging. We never once believe the viability of this band, or the talent of those we’re told produce this radio-ready clamor, and there’s never an attempt at making their rise realistic or tough. Instead, it’s everything upturned on a solid silver platter, the fable like story strictly keeping within the ‘adversity meets accomplishment’ plot mechanics.
Though he may have the distinction of being part of a hit TV series, Rainn Wilson is not necessarily star vehicle material. He seems to work better in second banana mode, as anyone familiar with his place in The Office will attest. But here, given the opportunity to shine as the center of this storyline, his hollow, almost invisible influence really shows through. You never once understand how the teens look up to Fish (he’s more infantile than immature) and his hand sign throwing decadence seems lifted out of Keith Moon’s cousin’s How-To manual. From the lack of chemistry with co-star Christina Applegate - who makes a much more effective ex-rocker, by the way - to his strange, off-kilter look, Wilson was not the right choice here.
Oddly enough, the rest of the cast is perfectly fine. While he’s sunk struggling through the awkward fat kid dynamic, Josh Gad continues to show his way with a punchline, and similarly saddled with the Jonas Brothers Band appeal, Teddy Geiger offers far more depth than Tiger Beatness. Perhaps the best performance here is given by Emma Stone, as ADD’s bashful bass player. Combining smarts with a vulnerability that hints at her hots for Geiger’s Curtis, she continues to improve on her solid turn in Superbad. Also worth another mention is Applegate, especially in light of recent personal events. Coming across like a combination of Nancy Wilson and Belinda Carlise, her concern for her son is equally matched by her energy as a character. She carries every scene she is in, and provides a necessary counterpoint to Wilson’s aimless antics.
Perhaps the most shocking name associated with this production is director Peter Cattaneo. The UK filmmaker, Oscar buzzkilled for his work on The Full Monty, has clearly spent the last 11 years whizzing away his Academy cred. After two improbable and little seen efforts, many may view this as a return to form. But with its constant borrowing from the genre’s mandates (lots of live concert scenes and unnecessary musical montages), he fails to interject anything new or novel. We know that these good natured kids aren’t going to lose - at least, not in traditional terms - and the last act stand off with Vesuvius would be satisfying if it wasn’t so slapdash and somewhat predictable.
Indeed, much of The Rocker feels like the rehearsal for a much better, much more likeable film. Every time the young actors get into a rhythm, providing the kind of breezy excitement we expect from the material, something comes along to counterattack their charms. Sometimes, it’s Wilson. At other moments, it’s obvious comedy stupidity spewed by a hip hop yakking Will Arnet. Cattaneo can do little except sit back and let it all play out, his lack of control costing the film greatly in the genuineness and joy divisions. In fact, one can easily see the editorial changes that would make this movie function much, much better. In essence, they mandate removing Wilson, making Applegate the star, and turning it all into an exploration of ‘90s riot grrrl reverence.
Instead, The Rocker plays right to the boy band crowd, its innocuous ear candy soundtrack going down like a K-Tel collection from Lou Pearlman. It’s as heavy as a Hannah Montana episode and as metal as said literal lead balloon. It will go down easy with audiences who don’t mind their pop served up with a side order of saccharine, and when it occasionally catches fire, its out of place star is always around to put it out. It’s hard to know if this concept could ever really work, given the sodden nature of the premise and potential. Sadly, such speculation may be far more fun than anything offered here.