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Metal Meltdown

A year after Cameron Crowe climbed back aboard the tour bus for one last spin through rock's golden days of giddy hedonism and phony heroism comes a film set in the mid-1980s, when the parties got harder, the music louder, and the musicians prettier. The world of Rock Star is one the protagonist of Almost Famous would probably flee in terror and pity; his golden gods have been replaced by makeup-wearing, chain mail-sporting cock-rock clowns with hair more teased than a third grader with a stutter. They're quite famous indeed but hollow icons at best, dispensable cutouts easily replaced by any wannabe in the audience who knows all the words and knows how to shout them to the devil.

Ask singer Rob Halford, who left Judas Priest at the beginning of the 1990s to be replaced by an Ohio kid who once dreamed of being Rob Halford. Rock Star, then, is -- and isn't -- the story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, the Akron office-supply salesman who went from fronting a Judas Priest tribute band to fronting the Priest. He is the audience's surrogate, the one fan lucky enough to live the daydream. He is you, and you -- yeah, you, in the leather jacket and pants screaming "Breaking the Law" from the front row -- could one day be him.

Rock Star tells that story until it ransacks the grab bag of rock 'n' roll clichés for its second half. Writer John Stockwell (HBO's Breast Men) changes the names (Owens becomes Chris "Izzy" Cole, played by reformed rapper Mark Wahlberg), settings (Akron becomes Pittsburgh), genres (the Priest's metal edge has been dulled to sound more like Poison and Warrant), and eras (the mid-'90s give way to the mid-'80s, during hair-metal's ascendancy rather than its demise). For the most part, it stays faithful to the fable: Chris's mother, like Tim's, runs a daycare center in her home; Chris sells office supplies; and he fronts a tribute band that mimics, down to every last sustained note and squeal, his idols (a hair band named Steel Dragon, made up of real musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist, Zakk Wylde, and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham). Chris, thanks to a videotape made by two groupies, is invited to front the band when the Dragon's lead singer, Bobby (Jason Flemyng), is ousted after being outed, a reference to Halford's coming out of the closet in 1995.

And for a while Rock Star lets us in on the thrill of living the dream, even if that means wearing someone else's clothes and singing someone else's words exactly the way he did. Chris is so obsessed with getting Bobby right that he manages to alienate his own band; he'd rather pick an on-stage fight with his guitarist than let him play one wrong note in public. He refuses to write his own songs -- "I don't wanna be another clown with a guitar trying to get someone to notice me," he rationalizes -- but he's meant for bigger things than a tribute band, and Wahlberg plays Chris like a superstar trapped in suburbia. He even swaggers in his sleep. Invited to Steel Dragon's mansion for an audition, he and his faithful girlfriend-manager, Emily (Jennifer Aniston), can't make it through the hallway without ogling the guitars and platinum albums that adorn the walls and trophy cases. He's Alice in heavy-metal wonderland, and he can't stop grinning into the looking glass.

But writer Stockwell and director Stephen Herek (responsible for Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the ultimate dope-rock fantasy) aren't content with letting Chris live out the dream, which is why Owens has voiced his displeasure with Rock Star. This is less a movie about a (would-be) rock star than it is a movie about rock-movie clichés. It portrays Chris as a naive so bereft of probity and personality that he destroys the dream just as he begins to live it. He's a fool who believes he's the band and not just some singer for hire, and the movie sets about to tear him down before it ever builds him up.

It's as if Herek and Stockwell felt that, in order to make a "serious" rock movie, they had to capitulate to the genre's worst excesses, and so we're treated to countless scenes of dance-floor orgies (complete with chicks with dicks), backstage "pussy passes," drug binges, trashed hotel rooms, and blood transfusions. Herek has made a bloated concept album about faith and redemption and omitted all the good songs -- the ones that make you wanna pump your fist in the air, wave your Bic, and scream for vengeance. Rock Star takes itself so seriously it becomes full-on parody -- This Is Spinal Tap as a sanctimonious cautionary tale. And how rock 'n' roll is that?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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