Rock Bottom

'Rock Star' is a flat rags-to-riches fable that sucks the life out of rock and roll.

September 07, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Rock Star is an inept moral fable about glad rags and sad riches.

Set in the mid-'80s, it centers on a Pittsburgh heavy metal fan (Mark Wahlberg) who catapults to black-leather Olympus as the lead singer for Steel Dragon, the group imitated by his cover band.

Wahlberg's character loves the bellowing music of Steel Dragon; his bandmates play along simply to expand their audience.

When the cover band boots him because of his perfectionism, his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), the band's manager, says that all the talent has left the room.

But when he joins Steel Dragon after the band ditches its temperamental front man, the movie exposes the music as hard-driving hype - a way of getting teen-age boys to share the fantasy of living like pagan deities, complete with daily orgies on the tour bus, nightly orgies at swank clubs, and classic rock-star hotel pranks such as racing motorcycles through the corridors and gluing furniture to the ceiling.

Because he is good at heart if dim of brain, our guy's road leads out of this floating Xanadu and into virtuous and anti-glitzy Seattle, the new home of his righteous girlfriend. In the fade-out, he embarks on a doubtless dull career as a heartfelt singer-songwriter. Your ears starve for a decent number; the best you get are soundtrack scraps of Talking Heads doing "Once in a Lifetime" and a mediocre trio covering the Beach Boys' "California Girls."

The picture's real-life hook came from the story of Ripper Owens taking over for his role model Rob Halford in Judas Priest. But the movie has come out as a semi-raunchy rehash of every happy-faced Hollywood fable that instructs people to follow their dreams but first make sure they're the right dreams.

Director Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland's Opus) and screenwriter John Stockwell (who directed crazy/beautiful) ladle on dollops of the vastly better Saturday Night Fever. Wahlberg powdering himself, applying mascara and crawling into his custom leather outfit might be an homage to Travolta putting on his disco suit.

But Travolta's disco fixation epitomized the widespread urge for '70s teen-agers to forsake the remnants of the counterculture and create their own dance-club tribal rites. Wahlberg's character sums up nothing but the super-fan condition of "wannabeism."

Despite his good-natured core, his ability to belt out a tune, and his experience as hip-hop icon Marky Mark, Wahlberg, when he sings, lacks the galvanizing star presence that Travolta had when he danced. Aniston does better as a wised-up good gal, until she goes all gooey and teary-eyed; so does Timothy Spall as a roly-poly road manager who is both understanding and corrupt.

Rock Star neither touches a raw nerve nor garners any resonance as a period piece. You'd be better off renting This is Spinal Tap - it rips heavy metal apart but also honors it by wringing every possible iota of humor from its music and milieu. This movie lacks pulse and point. For all its metallic squalls and bluster, the only rock it does well is the limbo.

Rock Star

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Timothy Spall

Directed by Stephen Herek

Rated R (for language, sexuality and some drug content)

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 106 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

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