A year after Cameron Crowe climbed back aboard the tour bus for one last spin through rock's golden days of giddy hedonism and phony heroism comes a film set a decade later, in the mid-1980s, when the parties got harder, the music louder and the musicians prettier. The world of Rock Star is one Crowe's young stand-in from Almost Famous, William, would probably flee out of terror and pity; his golden gods have been replaced by makeup-wearing, chain-mail-sporting cock-rock clowns with hair more teased than a third-grader with a stutter. They're poster boys for leather and mascara, musicians with the grand aspirations of platinum and poontang. They're quite famous indeed but hollow icons at best, jukebox zeroes without a groupie in one hand and a vial of blow in the other. They're dispensable cutouts easily replaced by any wannabe in the audience who knows all the words and knows how to shout them to the devil.
Ask singer Rob Halford, who left Judas Priest -- perhaps the greatest of all metal-forgers, responsible for such essential landmarks as Hell Bent for Leather and British Steel -- at the beginning of the 1990s to be replaced by an Ohio kid who once dreamed of being Rob Halford. Rock Star, then, is -- and isn't -- the story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, the Akron office-supply salesman who went from fronting a Judas Priest tribute band (never say cover band) to fronting the Priest, a fantasy made tangible with a single phone call. Owens' tale, recounted in a July 1997 New York Times piece, comes complete with the happiest of leather-clad endings; it goes Behind the Music, sans the overdoses and car wrecks. After replacing Halford, Owens went on tour with the Priest, recorded two albums as the Priest's lead singer (including the just-released Demolition) and was recently married -- a fairytale for the Metal Edge crowd, down to Owens' insistence on staying in Akron and hanging with his old pals at the local chicken-wing eatery. That regular-guy routine is part of Owens' allure: He is the audience's surrogate, the one fan lucky enough to live the daydream. He is you, and you -- yeah, you, in the leather jacket and pants, screaming, "Breaking the Law" from the front row -- could one day be him.
Rock Star tells the same story -- indeed, the exact same story -- until it ransacks the grab bag of rock & roll clichés for its second half, which plays like one of those VH1 biopics about Def Leppard starring Anthony Michael Hall. Writer John Stockwell changes names (Tim "Ripper" Owens becomes Chris "Izzy" Cole, played by reformed rapper Mark Wahlberg), settings (Akron becomes Pittsburgh), genres (the Priest's metal edge has been dulled to sound more like Poison and Warrant) and eras (the mid-'90s give way to the mid-'80s, during hair-metal's ascendancy rather than its demise). For the most part, it stays faithful to the fable: Chris' mother, like Tim's, runs a daycare center out of her home; Chris sells office supplies and fronts a tribute band that mimics, down to every last sustained note and squeal, his idols (a hair band named Steel Dragon, made up of real musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham). Chris, thanks to a videotape made by two groupies, is invited to front the band when the Dragon's lead singer, Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng) is ousted after being outed, a reference to Halford's coming out of the closet in 1995.
And, for a while, Rock Star lets us in on the thrill of living the dream -- even if that means doing it while wearing someone else's clothes and singing someone else's words exactly the way he did. Chris is so obsessed with getting Bobby right that he manages to alienate his own band; he'd rather pick an onstage fight with his guitarist than let him play one wrong note in public. He refuses to write his own songs -- "I don't wanna be another clown with a guitar trying to get someone to notice me," he rationalizes -- but he's meant for bigger things than a tribute band, and Wahlberg plays Chris like a superstar trapped in Mom and Dad's suburbia. He even swaggers in his sleep. But when invited to Steel Dragon's mansion for an audition, he and his faithful girlfriend/manager, Emily (Jennifer Aniston), can't make it through the hallway without ogling the guitars and platinum albums that adorn the walls and trophy cases. He's Alice in a heavy-metal wonderland, and he can't stop grinning into the looking glass.
But Stockwell and director Stephen Herek (responsible for Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the ultimate dope-rock fantasy) aren't content with letting Chris live out the dream, which is why Owens has voiced his displeasure with Rock Star. Theirs is less a movie about a (would-be) rock star than it is a movie about rock movie clichés. They haul out the groupies and orgies and booze and blow like dressing-room caterers; they never let Chris enjoy the ride, not when they're too busy trying to throw him under the tour bus. The movie portrays Chris as a naïf so bereft of probity and personality that he destroys the dream just as he begins to live it. He's a fool who believes he's the band and not just some singer-for-hire, and the movie sets about tearing him down before it ever builds him up. It revels in his humiliation.
It's as though Herek and Stockwell (who wrote HBO's Breast Men) felt that in order to make a "serious" rock movie, they had to capitulate to the genre's worst excesses, and so we're treated to countless scenes of dance-floor orgies (complete with chicks with dicks), backstage "pussy passes," drug binges, trashed hotel rooms and blood transfusions. Herek's made a bloated concept album about faith and redemption and left off all the good songs -- the ones that make you wanna pump your fist in the air, wave your Bic and scream for vengeance. Rock Star takes itself so seriously that it becomes full-on parody -- This Is Spinal Tap as a sanctimonious cautionary tale. And how rock & roll is that?