Rock Star (2001)

by Mike Ward


Telling one from the other

Although Rock Star is supposedly based on an episode in the life of ‘80s metal band Judas Priest, in its execution, the movie resembles a generic fable more than it does a biopic. Not that this is surprising, or even a bad thing. It isn’t really Judas Priest we care about here, is it? No, what we care about is fame: the phenomenon and sensation of celebrity, both as it is lived and as it manifests in the unfamous people who witness it, whose attentions make it happen.

Loosely adapted from the tale of Rob Halford’s replacement as Judas Priest’s lead singer, Rock Star follows Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg) as a front man for a “tribute band” that imitates fictional superstar heavy metal act Steel Dragon. When Steel Dragon’s lead singer Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng) is pressured out of the band—not because of his newly revealed homosexuality, the other members insist, but rather because of his growing inattention to his band-related responsibilities—Chris is brought in as a replacement, thus realizing a dream he’s been pursuing all his life.

cover art

Rock Star

Director: Stephen Herek
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Flemyng, Timothy Olyphant

(Warner Bros.)

Whatever the connection to Judas Priest, Steel Dragon is a plausible substitute for any number of Reagan-era heavy metal acts, and the movie’s time and place—captioned in the opening scenes simply as “Pittsburgh, the ‘80s”—seem more a broad institutional memory of the decade rather than an attempt to evoke any particular part of it. Hence the movie helps itself to a buffet of musical styles, associating Steel Dragon with both the down-under, three-chord campfire metal of AC/DC (who produced a Steel Dragon song for the movie’s soundtrack) and glam rock California bands such as Ratt, whom Steel Dragon’s leader sees as a competitor. Never mind that AC/DC’s heyday had long gone by the time Ratt made it big. And never mind that in its understated stage makeup and plain red jackets and jeans, Steel Dragon actually looks more like working-stiff speed-metal band Slayer than Ratt or AC/DC, whose lead guitarist performs not in leather and denim, but in a Catholic schoolboy uniform.

So really, as a historical document of ‘80s popular metal Rock Star is more a casual recollection than a specific record. All the music, the hairstyles, the mannerisms are stirred together, a blend of images, experiences, and products that are separate from time and place. But this is part of what makes the movie wonderful, when it is. Instead of historical fealty (which is more an ideal than an achievable goal in any case), the narrative offers a peculiar surrealism only generally linked to the ‘80s. After Chris makes it big in Steel Dragon, the group members drag-race in the Burt Ward-Adam West Batmobile and turn hotel rooms into funhouses by nailing all the furniture to the ceiling. By now the movie, becoming a bit dreamlike, has abandoned even the confinement of the ‘80s as a narrative framework—bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin founded the practice of trashing hotel rooms in the two decades previous, and what, for God’s sake, could the Batmobile possibly have to do with anything? The movie isn’t even about rock star fame anymore, but fame in all its various modes.

But Rock Star‘s most resonant poetic-absurdist image is that of a pair of groupies, Nina and Samantha, who pop up briefly at the beginning to hand out flyers for Chris Cole’s cover band in the movie’s first reel. They are stereotypically ‘80s—not only do they have the huge feathered hair, but they also invariably speak in unison, less recognizable human characters than stereotypes. It is, of course, impossible to know where Nina stops and Samantha begins, yet theirs seems merely an advanced case of a disease that afflicts just about everybody in the movie. Early on, Chris, imitating Bobby Beers, gets into a fight with the vocalist for a rival tribute band, Black Babylon. A rumble breaks out, everyone in each band fighting with his corresponding, identically dressed imitator, so that, like Nina and Samantha, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

It’s a comic moment, but premised on a submerged anxiety. Chris’ bumbling-cop brother Joe communicates this anxiety at the family breakfast table while wearing the blue badge and uniform of The Establishment: “The sickest thing about you,” he tells Chris, “is you don’t have any fantasies of your own.” It’s a joke, but it’s fairly scary as far as jokes go. To lose not only your identity but also your interior autonomy in imitating a mythic figure is to come dangerously close to Nina and Samantha’s psychological state. Or, to put it another way: Joe is calling Chris a mindless clone, and he’s not completely off the mark.

Joe sounds the alarm for other anxieties as well. After Chris storms away from the breakfast table, Joe says to their mother, “I question his sexuality, I really do,” articulating his apparent belief that Chris, by lacking fantasies of his own, is leaving himself vulnerable to homoerotic impulses that are visited on him, in a vague kind of way, from outside. The woman sitting next to me in the preview screening answered Joe’s comment with a loud “Fuck him!”, meaning fuck Joe. But if her complaint was with Joe’s apparent phobia, her response might just as well have been “Fuck this entire movie.” Because Rock Star eventually endorses this fear of homoerotic feelings, associating them with delirium and psychological weakness.

This happens most conspicuously in a Crying Game moment. After a drunken hotel room bender, Chris—hung over and full of regrets—encounters hypersexy Steel Dragon publicity agent, Tania (Dagmara Dominiczyk), touching up her makeup in the open-doored hotel room bathroom. When she informs Chris that he was “wonderful” the previous night, the fear is that he was unfaithful to his girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston). But then Chris realizes that Tania is wearing his leather pants, and when she tells him that they’re tighter in the crotch than she prefers, it becomes clear that she’s actually urinating standing up. At this moment the fear of infidelity slides into a fear of transsexuality; the worst thing that can happen to Chris is not to lose his relationship with Emily, but to be intimate with someone who has a penis.

It’s disappointing that the movie, which begins well, ends up with such a boring reassertion of straightness, not only with regard to sexual orientation, but also with regard to lifestyles and values more generally. Mats (Timothy Spall), Steel Dragon’s impish and thoroughly debauched manager, articulates the movie’s nostalgia for a conventional, conservative mode of living when, over a social drink (as grounding, apparently, as a binge drink is destabilizing and corrupting), he tells Chris about the life he could have lived. In order to work with the band, he walked out on a stable marriage, and now he recounts for Chris running into his ex-wife at a Steel Dragon show, whereupon he learned that she married Mats’s best friend, a doctor, and “had three gorgeous kids.” Mats concludes the story, “She’s very happy,” then sinks into a thick melancholy. In casting the values of the heavy metal “lifestyle” in opposition to those of the conservative middle-American existence that Mats’s anecdote extols, it traces a roundabout trajectory through heavy metal that eventually lands in the comfortable zone of the nuclear family.

Granted, metal has come into its own in recent years as just such a propaganda piece. For instance, you may have seen a credit card commercial recently that features a grinding heavy metal soundtrack; as the heavy metal pounds away, a plastic charge card spins violently in a centrifuge, bending with the sheer thrill of acceleration. The commercial never argues convincingly that putting oneself into debt is really as exciting as all this, but no matter—it’s presumably the credit card company’s hope that the simple juxtaposition of images will be enough to get people signing up.

Although the surrealism of Rock Star‘s first hour or so might raise expectations that it will take a more nuanced view of heavy metal as a historical, social—and yes, comic—phenomenon, the film eventually fizzles. By using metal primarily to promote values at odds with the music’s expressed philosophies (Chris sings about “revolution,” but he himself isn’t much of a rebel), it sadly misses an opportunity to be much more vivid and compelling than it is. Besides, admit it: wouldn’t it have been fun to see Marky Mark bounding around in a Catholic schoolboy uniform?

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