Boomers, ad directors for Versace, and kids who weren’t even born when Ozzy Osbourne bit his first bat are having a dandy time these days reviving and reinterpreting the 1980s in style, attitude, and artistic tribute—and why not? The decade was so brazenly overdecorated and unironically me-me-me-oriented that the pop culture of the time feels positively exotic and full-blooded by today’s cautious, smugly recessive tastes. In rock music, particularly, the popularity of heavy metal groups, glam bands, and the fantastical ”hair metal” artists of the ’80s rises again: Amp-and-codpiece showmanship, complete with snarling reverb, can now be embraced—and ever-so-gently mocked and defanged—with ironic affection by new-millennium hipsters.
Weren’t they great, those theatrical bad boys like Slayer, Anthrax, Poison, and AC/DC? Wasn’t their big hair great? Isn’t it fun, secure in our tasteful 21st-century Gap wardrobes, to pretend they were great?
Rock Star provides a fair amount of shallow fun pretending that 1980s heavy metal was actually heavy. Indeed, the scene was so intoxicating, at least as depicted in this praise-with-faint-damns musical morality tale (directed, in fits and starts of stylishness, by Stephen Herek from a screenplay by John Stockwell), that some young men in one Pennsylvania steel town spent their daytime lives as entry-level workers in a half stupor, awakening only at night to howl at the moon, melodically speaking. That’s when Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg)—a photocopier-jam clearer by profession—morphs with his friends into Blood Pollution, a ”tribute band” (don’t call them a cover group) devoted to mimicking their favorite metallurgists, Steel Dragon.
Actually, Chris watches and imitates every breath Steel Dragon takes so obsessively that he alienates his other basement bandies. Well, the joke’s on them. Thanks to the miracle of rock resurrection, that same warped perfectionism brings Chris to the attention of Dragon itself, whose members pluck the small-time fan from obscurity as a replacement for their lead singer (Jason Flemyng) when the (gay) dude quits over issues of sexual politics. (Any anthropological similarity to the history of heavy metallists Judas Priest is no accident.)
Showbiz excess follows, of course, with attendant drugs, sex, and boys-on-the-bus shenanigans. The Dragons with their seen-it-all eyes, and the trailing sex kittens with their plastic favors, rock Chris’ world and threaten his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Emily (Jennifer Aniston). But here’s the thing: Rock Star is really all about being true to oneself in 2001 by recommitting to old-fashioned family values of fidelity and moderation—political strategies likely to win approval from both Reagan/Bush voters and don’t-inhale Clintonians. As played by Aniston with Friends-honed commercial briskness, Emily is about as 1980s a chick as Mrs. Clinton. As taught by ”Rock Star” — and, not so very long ago, by the companion-piece 1970s musical tribute Almost Famous—rock rules, but it ain’t real. And this movie is as packed with flashy bogusness as a lead singer’s tight leather trousers.
On the other hand, there’s nothing bogus about the charisma and tough sweetness of Wahlberg, whose own authentic backside-of-Boston provenance gives him an edge on playing Chris from the heart. Wahlberg preened to a different beat during his Marky Mark days, but every moment he stands up and shouts here—either with the two-bit pasty boys of Blood Pollution or with the grizzled demi-gods of Steel Dragon—he becomes the spirit of heavy metal, a pumped-up persona bodyguarding a skinny white guy’s insecurities. In the past four years, Wahlberg has transformed himself, remarkably, from a faux rapper in interesting underwear to a true movie star, even when stranded by Tim Burton on the Planet of the Apes. (Rent the 1996 thriller Fear for a jolt of rough Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon.) But not since Boogie Nights has Wahlberg created so winning and personal a character—and this in a plot that’s about as impersonal and obvious as Hard Rock Cafe merchandise.
Wahlberg is the star in Rock Star, no doubt about it. And in the musical numbers, Herek matches the actor’s physical magnetism with a visual energy that tends to peter out when the story shifts to Chris’ relationship with Emily or his family. (Mom and Dad go overboard as supportive fans; big brother, a cop, goes overboard as a resentful shorthair.) But Wahlberg is also backed by a cast that, for obsessives who like that sort of thing, add more irony to the fire: The Steel Dragon band is played by some real ’80s rockers, and among the players’ long-suffering significant others, Rachel Hunter—ex?Mrs. Rod Stewart—supplies a weird meta-moment or two as a drummer’s steel-tempered wife.
”Dream big. Live the life,” the indispensable Timothy Spall, as the Dragon’s dissolute road manager, tells Chris. That Rock Star finds it necessary to spell out dumb stuff like this is its failure. That for a moment or two Wahlberg is a rock star is its success. B-