In the search for a new lead singer for the Aussie rock band, “Rock Star: INXS” starts with 15 vocalists ready and rarin’ to go. No auditions, no criticism, no cut-ups — none of the “American Idol” stuff that makes auds convulse with laughter. This is serious business from the start, as INXS and guitarist Dave Navarro play dream maker with 15 rockers who are, initially, a far cry from the late Michael Hutchence.
Opening seg, which delivers an emotional spot late in the episode that bonds the contestants and might well weld an aud to the show, starts with the 15 hopefuls moving into a Hollywood Hills mansion and, with only an hour to prepare, delivering solo perfs at downtown L.A.’s Mayan.
This is not a rocker version of “American Idol” or Mark Burnett’s other reality smashes, “The Apprentice” and “Survivor.” It has the trademarks — the solo interviews and encapsulations, the shots that capture the splendor these potential rags-to-riches are enjoying, the heartache of a flubbed perf — and as stylized as it is, “Rock Star” has an overriding air of honesty. Brooke Burke is a perfect nonintrusive host.
What it doesn’t have initially — and it doesn’t appear to change with segment two — is INXS music. Considering that their presence is the show’s hook, it would be natural to hear their music beyond the limp version of “New Sensation” that serves as the theme. We get songs by the Who, Kinks, Dylan, Black Crowes, Nirvana and others, but in the long run it doesn’t really matter how well the winner can sing those covers.
“Rock Star” assumes that the viewing audience remembers INXS and that their string of hits from the 1980s — “What You Need,” “Need You Tonight,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Kick” — is among the most cherished catalog missing from the tour circuit. That’s pretty wishful thinking.
Much of INXS’ appeal was found in the good looks, swagger and sultry voice of Hutchence, who could hold his own on video and the stage; the other part of INXS’ appeal was the songs — a bit of glam, a bit of funk and catchy bass lines with love-and-sex lyrics that fell naturally from Hutchence’s lips. The final 15, however, are modernists more in tune with the music that went before and came after INXS’ run on the charts, leaving the band without the option of a Hutchence copycat. (Would it not have been interesting to have seen a member of an INXS tribute band in the competish?)
When the finalists take the stage in the premiere, backed by an adequate house band while INXS and Navarro listen and evaluate, only a handful reveal themselves as strong performers and singers. “Idol” jargon shows up — pitchy, poor song selection — along with a new one, “over the top,” that will probably be heard over and over. These talents are raw and most of the singers don’t know how to use their voices to their fullest; but Mohawk-sporting Ty Taylor emerges quickly as the one who gets it on every level.
But tattoos, Mohawks, piercings and rock ‘n’ roll are not the usual selling points for CBS shows, and they might lose the INXS fans who tune in to hear the band’s music. Nearly half the contestants are women and fortunately, based on just one perf, several of them are stronger than some of the men. Were they not, their casting would feel like an eye-candy decision and nothing more.
Some shots go a bit far into the gothic all-candles look of “Behind the Music,” but “Rock Star” generally lets the drama and excitement of playing rock music drive the show. If nothing else, it has the gentlest elimination of any reality show.
“Rock Star: INXS” will air Mondays (taped segments focusing on the performers’ relationships and activities), Tuesdays (performance competition) and Wednesdays (elimination) through September. Epic Records will release the debut with the new singer and a subsequent worldwide tour is being eyed.