A movie about the gullible and pitched to the naive, “Rock Star” struggles to resist being as generic as its title, but is never more than just another replay of the hoary postulate that showbiz is all about rising, falling and being redeemed. Although John Stockwell’s script is based on a true account of a lead singer in a metal tribute band being recruited by the unit he’s been a fan of, the telling can never wriggle away from the twin contrivances of fantasy and cautionary tale. Latter element is applied with all the subtlety of a Poison guitar riff, and feels particularly like old news after the risks of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle were laid out for the previously uninformed in last year’s “Almost Famous.” Middling opening weekend turnout, propped by interest from metal fans (who are certainly not addressed in Warners’ deceiving grunge-look ad campaign) won’t exactly inspire a new wave of garage bands and may be somebody’s measure of rock’s constantly reported demise.
If it’s old news on one hand, it’s deja vu all over again for Mark Wahlberg, for whom this is a return to the land of Dirk Diggler and “Boogie Nights.” Wahlberg’s Chris Cole, a passionate acolyte of metal superstar band Steel Dragon and so devoted — and self-deluded — that he insists to his Blood Pollution bandmates that theirs is a tribute band and not a cover band, is more focused than Dirk but no less wide-eyed, sincere and untouched by the big bad world.
Chris, though, has something Dirk never had, and that’s a terrifically supportive set of parents (Beth Grant and Michael Shamus Wiles)who give the term rock-solid new meaning, plus Emily (Jennifer Aniston), a loyal g.f. who’s also Blood Pollution’s manager. The support system, especially in pic’s opening section, is a refreshing change from the usual portrait of the loner misunderstood artist, but it’s also indicative that Chris — and the movie — have much less at risk than Dirk ever did.
When Steel Dragon’s tour comes through Chris’ hometown of Pittsburgh in the mid-’80s, everyone’s there to cheer them on, with Chris in the front row singing in exact tandem with lead singer Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng). A post-concert dust-up in the arena parking lot with rival tribute group Black Babylon is a foreshadowing of trouble to come, which includes Blood Pollution guitarist Rob (Tim Olyphant) finally having enough of Chris’ insistent instructions on how to exactly duplicate the sound of Steel Dragon — itself a blend of Metallica, Aerosmith, AC/DC and Poison, to name a few.
Soon, Chris realizes he’s on the outs when he arrives at a rehearsal and finds Bradley subbing for him on lead.In true fantasy form, though, Steel Dragon leader Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West, in full debauched glory) phones Chris and invites him to join him and the lads at their L.A. mansion/studio. With Emily accompanying, Chris arrives like an innocent abroad, dumbfounded by everything from the exotic, dangerous-looking band PR handler Tania (Dagmara Dominczyk, whose name says everything about her performance) to the band’s mansion. Chris is whisked into an audition as the band singer, which he predictably passes with flying colors, though he’s witness to an ugly breakup with Bobby.
At this point, “Rock Star” becomes a morality tale on the vices and dangers of rock ‘n’ roll living, and that it delivers this as news is only part of the movie’s basic tin ear for pop culture attitudes. Even more unexamined is how Chris, who’s a walking encyclopedia on Steel Dragon and who surely knows all the worst rumors and news about the groupies, the drugs and the libertinism that metal rock flaunts like a badge of honor, is amazed at how excessive it all is.
Chris is a trooper to be sure but his naivete about the life pushes this tale past the point of all credibility. Tour manager and band mother-hen Mats (Timothy Spall) is this couple’s guide, and while Mats has an authentic backstory true to the roots of British rockers, he’s also part of what reduces Chris and Emily to passive receivers of wisdom from the grizzled vets surrounding them.
Much more comfortable in this setting than some distant planet ruled by simians, Wahlberg is technically perfectly suited to the role: After all, his beginnings as rapper Marky Mark give him the experience in live performance (albeit in a different music mode) so that when he cranks it up here with several metal musicians (ranging from the Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark to Dokken’s Jeff Pilson) in impressively staged live concerts, it sounds like the real thing to a far greater degree than the band performances in “Almost Famous.” Thesp, though, has repeated and pushed the persona of fallen innocent as far as it can go, and it’s clearly time to move in a different direction.
Aniston and Spall lead the supporting cast with considerable conviction, even though their roles are rote. Spall has absorbed Mats’ happy attitude of abandoning oneself to excess, while knowing when he must play nurse. West has fun playing dress-up as a metal god — pic’s original title, as seen in useless closing credit out-takes.
Production is physically impressive throughout, with Ueli Steiger’s widescreen lensing, Mayne Berke’s design and Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ costumes fully capable of taking in the rock business’ operatic extremes in the 1980s.