Saturday 9 August 2008

Film Review: Rock Star (2001)

In 1991, Rob Halford, the lead singer for leading British heavy metal group Judas Priest, left the band. He was eventually replaced by an unknown named Tim "Ripper" Owens, who was the lead singer for a Priest "tribute" band called British Steel. One of the nicknames of Judas Priest was "Metal Gods", after their song on the album British Steel.

The movie Rock Star is loosely based on these events. During the making of the movie there was a fallout between the film's producers and Judas Priest that prevented the movie from being explicitly linked with the band, so Rock Star claims to be a work of fiction, but the parallels with real life remain clear. The movie's working title was "Metal God". The British heavy metal band in the movie is Steel Dragon, and their lead singer quits the band. Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Cole, the unknown Pittsburgh-based lead singer of a tribute band, who is plucked from obscurity to become the new lead singer of Steel Dragon, the most famous heavy metal band in the world. However, the movie is set in the 1980's, at the peak of heavy metal's popularity, and about a decade prior to the story that inspired it.

There are few good serious movies set against a heavy metal backdrop. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is a terrific movie, but it unfortunately established an expectation that heavy metal can only be treated as a joke, and not a subject for a serious narrative. Rock Star is therefore a welcome achievement. It provides a terrific peek into the world of heavy metal super stardom, set against an interesting story made more fascinating by its connections to reality. The true top-of-the-music-heap sex, drugs and rock'n'roll life that is vividly described in books like Slash (2008) comes to life on the screen, and Wahlberg does a terrific job as the wide-eyed neophyte who is dropped into a world that he always dreamed of, but that is wilder than he could ever have imagined.

In supporting roles, the film has real-life heavy metal musicians like guitarist Zakk Wylde, drummer Jason Bonham, and members of Slaughter and Dokken adding a layer of authenticity to the proceedings. Jennifer Aniston is Wahlberg's grounded manager / girlfriend, and her performance lifts her character out of the routine and into a full member of the plot.

Director Stephen Herek keeps the story moving briskly, and does an excellent job of conveying the electricity of massive live heavy metal concerts, the sweatiness of smaller performances in less glamorous surroundings, and the excessive lifestyle that accompanies the biggest music bands in the world.

The movie features a few original songs, but mostly the soundtrack is composed of top heavy metal tunes from the 1980's that almost serve as narration, providing commentary on the unfolding story.

Rock Star ends with a wistful echo of the rapid downfall of stadium heavy metal and the emergence of grunge that occurred between 1989 and 1991. This adds a fine denouement to an enjoyable movie forged in metal.

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