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With: Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Flemyng, Timothy Olyphant, Timothy Spall, Dominic West
Written by: John Stockwell
Directed by: Stephen Herek
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality and some drug content
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/04/2001

Rock Star (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Come On Feel the Noize

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mark Wahlberg is so good in Rock Star that he convinced me his horrible Planet of the Apes performance was on purpose. An actor this good can't have been that awful without planning it.

In Rock Star, he plays Chris Cole, the lead singer in a Steel Dragon cover band... er.... sorry... "tribute" band. Steel Dragon is the leading heavy metal band circa the early-to-mid 1980s, and could represent anyone from Def Leppard to Judas Priest to Twisted Sister. You get the point.

Chris and his band Blood Pollution play Steel Dragon cover tunes down to the minute details, the exact notes, the exact riffs. If any band member begins to follow his own musical muse, Chris goes nuts. Meanwhile, his own rock posturing has been honed to utter perfection, including piercing his nipple to match his hero's.

When the lead singer of the real Steel Dragon "retires," the band somehow gets hold of a tape of Chris performing and hires him. Chris becomes an overnight heavy metal sensation without the pesky bother of slowly climbing the ladder.

During the moment when a hydraulic lift deposits him on stage for the first time, his face and eyes register a hundred emotions: fear, excitement, the struggle to remember song lyrics. His girlfriend and manager Emily (Jennifer Aniston) suddenly finds herself on the sidelines of a world filled with blond porn stars, fishnetted rock groupies and plenty of stimulants, both legal and illegal.

Rock Star runs the old, ragged ground of the "rags-to-riches" story and the "rock fantasy" story, but at the same time, it provides a kind of wink-wink to some of the scenes. ("We don't want our fans going off and listening to Ratt," one band member says.)

The film really has less in common with Almost Famous or This Is Spinal Tap than it does with Boogie Nights -- just without the high level of invention and ambition.

But some scenes play straight and fall right off the edge, such as when Chris hears Steel Dragon manager Mats (Timothy Spall) pour his guts out about leaving behind his beautiful wife for the world of rock 'n' roll. Still, director Stephen Herek (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and writer John Stockwell (Breast Men) somehow keep everything moving along.

Rock Star's live music scenes really shine. The members of Steel Dragon and Blood Pollution include Jason Bonham, son of legendary Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham; Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind, Jeff Pilson from Dokken and Dio; Brian Vander Ark from The Verve Pipe, and Zakk Wylde from Ozzy Osbourne's band. Trevor Rabin, formerly of Yes, provides the score.

If you grew up in the 1980s and wanted to rock, this kind of stuff was about all you could get (at least if you lived in a small town and didn't have access to cool record stores). I confess to thrashing around the living room to a few Dio tunes in my time.

Rock Star, using new and period songs, really captures the love/hate relationship behind hard rock. It embraces the cheesiness, but also the reality, of the music. One character explains to Chris (who changes his moniker to the more rock-worthy Izzy) that girls want to sleep with them, and guys want to be them, so that girls will want to sleep with them, too. And the guys are the ones who buy the records. If the girls go away, the guys go away too. That's the essence of heavy metal.

The irony of Chris' situation is that, even with the real magilla, he's still imitating someone else's moves and songs after he leaves the cover band. But the filmmakers are aware of that fact, and don't wave it around. Their first order of business is to have fun and celebrate the freedom and carelessness of rock life. They also show the price artists must pay.

The perfectly cast Aniston turns in a wonderful performance. She's extraordinarily beautiful, but has a kind of girl-next-door beauty of someone you could actually see as your girlfriend. Next to all the blond porn stars and groupies, Aniston looks a little dull, and we can easily see Chris' temptation to move on. But she's also the only one who looks real among all the glitter; the only one worth more than a one-night stand.

Spall (Topsy-Turvy), always worth watching, gives a real humanity to his stock rock manager character. (When he says to Chris right before his first night on stage, "I haven't lost a man yet," we believe him.)

Between Spall, Wahlberg and Aniston, this is one of the few American films I've seen this year that could yield some Oscar nominations.

Overall, Rock Star is nothing more than an accomplished retread of an old-time story. It gets closer to rock 'n' roll than Cameron Crowe's fluffy fairy tale Almost Famous did, and I admire its delicate balance of ridicule and honest appreciation.

It's not a great film, but very much worth seeing.

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