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 from which Crowe's young stand-in from Almost Famous, William, would probably flee out of terror and pity; his golden gods have been replaced by makeup-wearing, chain-mail-sporting cock-rock clowns with hair more teased than a third-grader with a stutter.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 when they don't have 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 at the devil.
Ask singer Rob Halford, who left Judas Priest 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 to fronting the Priest, a fantasy made tangible with a single phone call. Owens's tale, recounted in a July 1997 New York Times piece, comes complete with the happiest of leather-clad endings: He went on tour with the Priest, recorded two albums as the band's lead singer and was recently married -- a fairy tale for the Metal Edge crowd, down to Owens's insistence upon staying in Akron and hanging with his old pals at the local chicken-wing joint.
Rock Star tells this story until it ransacks the grab bag of rock 'n' roll cliches for its second half, which plays like a VH1 biopic 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 or 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's mother, like Tim's, runs a daycare center out of her home; Chris sells office supplies; and he 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). Thanks to a videotape made by two groupies, Chris 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 covering Bobby right that he manages to alienate his own band; he'd rather pick an on-stage fight with his guitarist than let him play one wrong note in public. He refuses to write his own songs, but he's meant for bigger things than a tribute group, and Wahlberg plays Chris like a superstar trapped in Mom and Dad's suburbia. He even swaggers in his sleep. But when he's 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 heavy-metal Wonderland, and he can't stop grinning into the looking glass.
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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 cliches. 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. Rock Star takes itself so seriously it becomes full-on parody -- This Is Spinal Tap as a sanctimonious cautionary tale. And how rock 'n' roll is that?