Rock Star (2001)
Director: Stephen Herek
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Dominic West, Jeff Pilson, Zakk Wylde, Jason Bonham
Recently, the British music website Louder posted a 20th anniversary look back at the 2001 film Rock Star, which starred Mark Wahlberg as a yokel heavy metal tribute-band singer who makes it to the big leagues when his favorite band needs a new vocalist. The movie was loosely inspired by the true story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, who went from singing in an Ohio-based Judas Priest tribute band to fronting the real Judas Priest for a couple of years in the late 1990s.
The Louder article called Rock Star "the worst film ever made about rock," which seemed particularly harsh to me, especially when you consider that Rock of Ages and Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park also exist. It had been quite a few years since I'd last seen Rock Star, though, so inspired by Louder's critical thrashing, I decided that it was time for a re-watch.
Rock Star is set in 1985, when heavy metal was at its stadium-filling peak, and the action revolves around a fictional Judas Priest-style act called Steel Dragon. When we meet Mark Wahlberg's Chris Cole, he's a lowly Pittsburgh copy machine repairman by day who fronts "Blood Pollution," a Steel Dragon tribute band, by night. I have always found it odd and somewhat hilarious that Wahlberg, a one-time rapper (remember "Marky Mark" and the dreaded Funky Bunch?), was playing a metalhead in this movie. His wig isn't very convincing, but his rock frontman moves are on point.
One fateful day, Steel Dragon announces that their lead singer Bobby Beers has quit the band. Coincidentally, Chris has just been fired from Blood Pollution after an onstage fight with his guitar player. Video footage of one of Chris' Blood Pollution performances makes its way to Steel Dragon, who invite him to audition for the vacant position. Determined to make his dream come true, Chris and his girlfriend/manager Emily (Jennifer Aniston, who it must be noted, looks extremely fetching in '80s metal hottie gear) head to L.A., where of course, he lands the gig. Soon Chris—now dubbed "Izzy" by his new bandmates—hits the road, and the couple is quickly swept up in the rock & roll whirlwind of gigs, sex, drugs, parties, and hotel room smashings.
Needless to say, the demands and temptations that come with Chris' new job eventually threaten his relationship with Emily, until he's forced to make a difficult decision—true love or true metal? I won't reveal how it turns out for those of you who haven't seen the film, but I will say I preferred the balls-to-the-wall, rock-and-roll-all-night first half of Rock Star over the second half, when it gets bogged down in the romantic drama subplot.
Rock Star does nail the sights and sounds of the arena-metal era on the head (director Stephen Herek, also helmed the first Bill and Ted movie, so he's had some experience with the headbanger genre), and the songs by the non-existent "Steel Dragon" actually sound pretty good. By the end of the film I even had a renewed respect for Wahlberg, despite his past musical sins. (His biggest Funky Bunch hit, "Good Vibrations," even plays out over Rock Star's end credits as a way too obvious in-joke.)
Coincidentally, I happened to come across the Rock Star soundtrack album at my local used-music vendor recently, so I jammed that CD numerous times as an accompaniment to my re-assessment of the film. The major draw of this mixed bag of tunes are the half-dozen tracks by "Steel Dragon," which are performed by a hair-metal mini-supergroup consisting of Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne) on guitar, Jeff Pilson (Dokken) on bass, Jason Bonham (son of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham) on drums, and Mike Matijevic (Steelheart) and Jeff Scott Soto (Yngwie Malmsteen) on vocals. The six "Steel Dragon" cuts (five originals and a cover of Rainbow's "Long Live Rock N Roll") fit the movie's 1985 vibe nicely, especially the ripping "Blood Pollution" and "Livin' The Life." The only misstep is the godawful ballad "We All Die Young," which I swear steals its backbone from U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," but that's my only complaint.
After listening to those half dozen tracks, I kinda wish they'd let the Steel Dragon guys cut a whole album's worth of tunes, a la Spinal Tap or Fastway's Trick or Treat, but the rest of the CD is padded out with a bunch of old bread like Motley Crue's "Wildside" (yawn), Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" (meh), KISS's "Lick It Up," and INXS' "Devil Inside." The Rock Star soundtrack may not be an essential purchase, but it's a worthy listen if you can find it cheap (like I did).
Rock Star was D.O.A. at the box office upon its release in 2001. The film finished in fourth place during its opening weekend, and critical reviews were middling at best. Roger Ebert's two-and-a-half-star review called Rock Star a "morality play with morose undertones" and said that with such a promising premise, the movie "should be more fun."
To make matters worse, the 9/11 attacks occurred only a few days after Rock Star hit theaters. Obviously, whatever chance it might have had to find an audience fizzled out as everyone's attention turned to more important matters.
Rock Star eventually found a receptive fan base via cable TV and home video, and now 20+ years after its release, it's become something of a "cult film" among '80s metal fans. I've actually seen some internet comments over the years calling for a Steel Dragon reunion, though I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen anytime soon.
Wahlberg and Aniston's careers managed to survive Rock Star, of course. While the film may not be This is Spinal Tap or Almost Famous, I found it to be loud, fast, cheesy, headbanging fun, worth revisiting.
© 2021 Keith Abt
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 19, 2021:
Yeah, probably something Mark Wahlberg wants to forget (along with the film The Happening). But sounds like the soundtrack might have worked.
Anyway, congrats on your Funniest Hubber Award! Your hubs always make me smile. Have a great day!
GreenMind Guides from USA on September 18, 2021:
I love this film. It's dumb and funny in the best way, like rock and roll itself, and always fun to watch. Thank you for giving it the oxygen it deserves!