Not all the characters in Richard Linklater’s seminal “Slacker” 10 years ago were stoned, or male. But if they’d been both, the results might have turned out rather like “Rock Opera,” another indie ensemble piece set in and around Austin. Too tense and violent at times to rate as 100% comedy, “Rock Opera” is nonetheless solid midnight-movie fare — especially for venues throughout Texas. At its S.F. Indie fest showings, the vid-shot feature had not yet been transferred to film.
The nominal lead is one Toe (Jerry Don Clark), a sandy-haired, goateed slacker type who — like all his friends — is twentysomething, has aspirations as a musician (in the band Pigpoke), and is perennially, desperately short on money. He unwisely decides to try selling dope when his own supplier is backlogged with orders. This puts him in debt to the older, hard-line Jarvis (Paul Wright). Toe’s third mistake is getting (voluntarily) buck-shot full of animal tranquilizers. Twenty-four hours later he wakes up by the side of a rural road, his payback cash missing. Enraged, Jarvis sends him on a courier mission to Del Rio, where his two anticipated contacts decide to have some “fun” at Toe’s expense, with disastrous consequences.
Scurrying back home, certain that his goose is cooked, Toe draws enemies like a magnet. Also returning — from a miserable, aborted “tour” with their band Witchbanger — his housemates arrive just in time to suffer an armed “Straw Dogs”–type ambush from various angry drug lords.
With its amiably profane dialogue (“dude” is the one recurrent four-letter word we can repeat here) and near-plotless progress, “Rock Opera” is often funny. But it’s also depressing and harrowing at times as hapless Toe finds himself in ever-greater peril. That all this is no doubt intended as a shaggy-dog joke doesn’t necessarily reduce its occasional unpleasantness. Paranoiacs, stoned or not, may find “Rock Opera” alltoo believable.
Others will be amused by the feature’s large scroll of Cheech & Chong–type loser characters, and by the constant input from assaultive local noise-rockers both live and soundtracked. (Sorry, no real opera is heard.) As writer, director and editor (as well as bit player), Austinite Bob Ray acquits himself well, even if this extremely druggy humor won’t be for all audiences. Tech aspects are appropriately rough-hewn, with a first shot after opening credits — from the p.o.v. of a loaded bong — setting the desired tone.