''Rock Star'''s writer went to heavy-metal school
John Stockwell experienced the scene firsthand to pen the cover-band fable
The morning after the Times piece on Tim ”Ripper” Owens hit, studios all over town were vying to option it. Warner Bros. won the race and brought me in to adapt. I had a propensity for turning reality-based stories into movies, and was drawn to films about obsession. I’d written HBO’s ”Breast Men,” about doctors obsessed with building a better breast. I’d written and directed ”Cheaters,” which centered on a teacher obsessed with winning. And ”crazy/ beautiful,” my latest directorial effort, spoke to the obsessive quality of first love.
I pitched my take on the story — an obsessed twentysomething selling office supplies in a rust-belt town has completely subsumed his own identity while fronting a tribute band. It’s only after this Überfan becomes the lead singer for the band he worships that he discovers his own identity and individual voice. But I needed to get the world right. I needed to get to those industrial ghost towns with plenty of angry white males who hated the ”rap crap” and still flew the flag for heavy metal. I needed to meet the guys who liked their music loud, fierce, and between the eyes. Guys who loved Judas Priest.
I went to Akron, Ohio, where Ripper had grown up. The ’80s weren’t making a comeback in Akron — they’d never left. I hung out in black-lit cinderblock bars that sold buckets of beer and hosted Ugly Bartender contests. I chatted up ”nail technicians” with bear-claw bangs held in place with Rave rocket fuel. I danced the Humpty dance. I drank dollar shots. I met Ripper at his homecoming show. The guys in Priest used to be posters on his wall and now he’s one of them!
I flew to Omaha to see Pantera perform. This is a band that gets no radio play, no videos on MTV. But they sell a ton of records and have rabid fans. They drink rotgut whiskey, own a strip club, and stay up for five days in a row. They took me on their tour bus and gave me a crash course in rock & roll excess. Before they kicked me off the bus, they warned me to get it right or else. I retreated to L.A. with a 104-degree fever and a new sense of my own mortality.
When I recovered, I immersed myself in the world of tribute bands. I met a guy who had false teeth made to simulate Steven Tyler’s overbite. I watched every ”VH1 Behind the Music.” I read every rock tell-all. I spent my nights on the Sunset Strip, let my hair grow. And I started really liking heavy metal. I wrote all nine drafts of ”Rock Star” with Dokken, Warrant, Skid Row, AC/DC, and Priest blasting.
I’m now working on a film about women’s surfing, so I spend my time in the waves and not in bars. But I want to thank all those headbangers who welcomed me into their world. I’ll never forget my days in the heavy metal heartland.